What are your rights when stopped by the police in Georgia.  Keep reading to learn from Spaulding Law’s criminal defense lawyer, Jeremy Hayes, what your rights are and what they are not when approached by a police officer.

Being stopped by the police is usually an unexpected and stressful situation. You are going about your day when suddenly you see flashing blue lights in your rear-view mirror or see a uniformed police officer with a gun approaching you on the street. Police officers are trained for these situations, and it is important that you know your rights and know how to conduct yourself when stopped by the police in order to minimize the chances that the encounter goes wrong.

Voluntary Encounter

Police officers have the right to approach citizens at any time and attempt to initiate a voluntary encounter. Just like you have the right to approach and speak to any other person you encounter in a public place, police officers can do the same. But just like you can ignore or walk away from a stranger approaching you on the street, you also have the right to ignore and walk away from a police officer attempting to engage you in a voluntary encounter.

Involuntary Encounter

What are your rights when stopped by the police in Georgia involuntarily.  As soon as the police officer tells you to stop or gives you an order to come and talk to him or her, the encounter is no longer voluntary and your legal rights are implicated. In order to initiate an involuntary stop of a citizen, a police officer needs reasonable suspicion that the citizen has engaged in or is about to engage in some illegal activity.

Reasonable suspicion is slightly less proof than probable cause. Probable cause is the level of proof required for the officer to make an arrest or issue a citation.

In other words, the officer can detain a person for questioning and a brief investigation based on a reasonable belief the person has committed or is about to commit a crime even if he does not quite have probable cause to charge the person yet. For example, a police officer who sees a person matching the description of a wanted suspect walking down the street can usually briefly detain the person for questioning to determine if the person is in fact the same person who is wanted.

The detention and investigation may lead the officer to conclude the person is not the wanted person and release them immediately. Or the investigation may cause the police officer to develop probable cause to believe the person is in fact the wanted person and arrest them. But the fact the person matches the description of a wanted person in the area where the wanted person might reasonably be found is usually enough reasonable suspicion to allow the officer to stop the person involuntarily and conduct a brief investigation.

Traffic Stop Rights

What are your rights when stopped by the police in Georgia during a traffic stop? Traffic stops work much the same way. A police officer cannot turn on his blue lights and stop a vehicle for no reason.

The officer must have reasonable suspicion to believe the person has committed a violation of the law. Most traffic stops occur after the police officer personally witnesses a driver commit a traffic violation such as speeding, running a red light, or failing to maintain their lane. An officer who observes a traffic violation has the right to use emergency lights (usually blue or blue and red) and siren to require the vehicle to pull over for further investigation.

The investigation that occurs after the traffic stop is not limited exclusively to the original traffic violation that caused the officer to initiate the stop. The officer is allowed to reasonably expand the scope of the investigation to make sure the driver is not impaired, not wanted on any warrants, and is a validly licensed and insured driver driving a properly registered vehicle.

In Georgia, the driver of any vehicle stopped by a police officer can then be required to show their driver’s license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration. Because driving on Georgia’s public roadways is considered a privilege and not a right, drivers are required to produce a valid driver’s license when requested by a police officer during a traffic stop.

          Passengers May Have More Rights

Passengers, however, are not necessarily required to identify themselves or produce driver’s licenses. Simply being a passenger in a vehicle in which the driver commits a traffic violation is not a violation of the law in itself. Most police officers will ask all occupants of any vehicle they stop for identification.

If you cannot produce it they will often ask for your name and date of birth. They usually do this so that they can check to see if they are dealing with anyone who has a warrant out for their arrest or a history of violence or weapons possession. However, if you as a passenger in a vehicle stopped in Georgia have not committed any violation of the law yourself (such as having drugs or an open container of alcohol in your lap as the officer approaches the vehicle) then you are not required to produce your identification or answer any questions.

However, it is usually advisable to produce your ID if you have it on you and to not answer any other questions as a passenger. It is a crime to provide a false name or date of birth to a police officer. So do not provide false information to an officer thinking they won’t figure out who you really are.

             Can Officer Require You To Exit Vehicle

Because courts have determined traffic stops can be inherently dangerous encounters for officers while the people stopped remain in the car, the officers are allowed to require the driver and passengers to step out of the vehicle during the stop so that they can more easily see what they are doing at all times and separate them from any weapons that may be concealed in the vehicle. Many officers will want to frisk or “pat down” the occupants of the car to see if they have weapons on them.

Georgia law says officers cannot frisk every person they stop as a routine practice. They must have some reasonable suspicion that the person might be armed before they can pat them down for weapons. This rule is frequently glossed over by officers though who prefer to try to pat down almost every person they have exit a vehicle to check for weapons.

Officers conducting a frisk for weapons are not supposed to reach inside a person’s pockets or manipulate the outside of their clothing to try to identify an object inside the pocket unless it reasonably feels like it could be a weapon such as a knife. Officers are not allowed to conduct searches of persons detained on the side of the road without probable cause to believe the person is in possession of something illegal. Officers can search a person after that person has been arrested.

                Can An Officer Search My Vehicle

Officers likewise cannot search your car without probable cause or your permission. Officers frequently use traffic stops as springboards for larger investigations looking for more serious crimes than the minor traffic violation that justified the initial stop. One of the main things officers look for during traffic stops is illegal drug possession.

You do not have to give a police officer permission to search your car. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits police officers from conducting unreasonable searches, which the Courts have determined to generally be searches not authorized by consent or a search warrant.

Because vehicles are so easily moved, the courts decades ago held that a search warrant is not required to search a vehicle during a traffic stop, but the officer still must have consent or probable cause to support a vehicle search. If an officer who is trained to recognize the odor of marijuana detects that odor coming from your car it will almost always give the officer probable cause to search your vehicle for drugs.

Officers frequently attempt to develop probable cause for a search by asking questions to you and your passengers. You never have to answer a police officer’s questions. Under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution you have an absolute right to remain silent and can never be compelled to give incriminating evidence against yourself.

People often get nervous when stopped by the police and try to talk their way out of the situation. But usually the opposite happens if the person has committed a violation of the law. They usually wind up giving the officer enough information to give the officer probable cause for an arrest or further investigation or provide false information, which is almost always going to result in a prolonged detention and likely arrest.

Again, knowingly providing false information to a police officer can be considered obstruction and lead to an arrest. Do not lie to police officers. Instead, simply exercise your right to remain silent and not answer questions.

Best Way To Handle An Involuntary Encounter With Police

With these rights in mind, the best way to handle an involuntary encounter with a police officer is to voluntarily provide your identification or your correct name and date of birth. After doing so, politely tell the officer you are exercising your Fifth Amendment right to not answer any questions.

If you are stopped in a vehicle, place your hands on the steering wheel if you are the driver and on the seat or dashboard in front of you if you are a passenger so the officer has no reason to believe you are reaching for anything concealed in the vehicle. If the officer asks you to step out of the vehicle, comply with his request but continue to politely refuse to answer any questions. If the officer asks for permission to search your vehicle, tell him or her you do not give permission for a search. By following these guidelines you increase the chances that you do not unknowingly provide the officer evidence to use against you or unnecessarily escalate an involuntary encounter with a police officer.

It is difficult to think clearly when you are nervous and intimidated by a police officer who has stopped you. The officer’s job is to investigate crime and to try to get you to provide them legal grounds to further their investigation.

They expect you to answer their questions and comply with their instructions. It catches officers off guard when you comply with their orders but politely refuse to answer questions or even engage in small talk. And it will likely feel awkward to you to do so, but this is why you should plan ahead for such an encounter and know in advance what you will do to protect your rights when stopped by the police.

If an officer conducts what you believe is an unlawful search or otherwise violates your rights on the side of the road, the best thing to do is to comply, refuse to answer questions, and immediately ask to speak to an attorney if you are arrested. Contact a criminal defense attorney at the earliest possible opportunity to obtain expert advice on what to do next. It is far better to challenge an unlawful search or arrest in court after the fact than to try to convince an officer on the side of the road that you are lawfully resisting their unlawful actions.

If you would like to learn more about your criminal rights in Georgia, please visit our criminal law section in the Learning Center to find additional topics of interest.  If you would like to speak to us about retaining our criminal defense services in your particular matter, call us at (470) 336-5562 or fill out our contact form at the top of this site and we will reach out to you to discuss your matter.