Blog Post

Arizona Traffic Stops: Know your Rights

If you drive anywhere in the U.S., the statistics show that you will, at some point, encounter the police. You should know your rights, and what to keep in mind when pulled over.

In our previous posts, we discussed police traffic stops, and refusing to speak with the police. In that article, released back in February, we urged our readers to remain silent during custodial interrogations. This article will look to the current troubling state of police traffic stops in the United States, and what you should know when you face a traffic stop.

Traffic stop numbers only tell half the story

The numbers are daunting. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 61 million citizens had at least one contact with the police in 2018. According to one project report, law enforcement pulls over nearly 50,000 U.S. drivers a day.

In Maricopa County, the Sheriff’s Office released a 2020 report, stating that African-American and Latino drivers are likely to be held longer in traffic stops than their white counterpart drivers. Sheriff Penzone commented on the 2020 study with the following:

“As I have said before, these disparate outcomes are warning signs of potential racial bias in our patrol function, which has been and continues to be a major concern for the Office. These may be indicative of a systemic problem within our patrol function…”

Yet, the numbers aren’t the only thing that remains alarming. Rather, the horrific traffic stop stories themselves are much more concerning. This month, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot and killed by Minnesota police after being pulled over during a routine traffic stop. While the police characterized the shooting “accidental”, the officer resigned, and is currently facing second degree manslaughter charges.

These stories are not just national news, they exist here in our own backyard. Two Arizonans, Mariah Valenzuela and Andres Dominguez, both of whom reside in the Maricopa County, are individually suing the City of Phoenix and the City of Scottsdale respectively. Valenzuela claims that the police injured her while throwing her to the ground during a traffic stop. Dominguez claims that officers slammed him to the ground in January 2020 after he was pulled over for a traffic stop U-turn.

Keep in mind, none of this blog discusses the tragic death of George Floyd. That topic deserves its own blog (or several for that matter). At the end of the day, police traffic stops are very tense situations. Both the statistics and stories behind them speak to that tension.

These next sections discuss helpful thoughts to keep in mind if (and likely when) you get pulled over in Arizona.

De-escalation: decrease the tension as much as you can

Compliance with the officers will relieve the tension. Long gone are the days where we should be asking if it is correct to ask the driver (who lacks the gun, taser and authority of the officer) to always practice de-escalation as much as possible.

Officers today are trained in diffusing tense situations, pull overs included. But, given the climate of these reoccurring stories (that appear to be weekly at this point), the goal here is to come away from the traffic stop without being subjected to force. As such, here are some traffic stop guidelines:

  • Wait for instructions from the officer to go through your car, or reach for your wallet.
  • Slow down when pulling over for the officer.
  • Have the windows down and your hands on the wheel.
  • Avoid sudden movements.
  • Be respectful and polite during your interactions.

You have the right to remain silent... use it

Drivers can refuse to speak to the police, even without an attorney present. BUT, it is key to understand that a driver must state in a clear manner that they want an attorney, and don’t wish to speak to the police.

Many times, I have seen clients who did not want to speak with the officer, but did so anyway, because they felt obligated to do so. If you have no desire to speak to law enforcement, let that be known upfront. The police will not read your mind, nor will they attempt to. You need to make your intentions clear regarding this.

The police always need reasonable suspicion

Suppose you get pulled over, and the officer says that he suspects that you were driving intoxicated. The officer needs reasonable suspicion that a DUI has occurred. If you were pulled over for a broken taillight, the officer simply does not have any reasonable suspicion to believe that you were driving while drunk. For more in DUI stops, click here.

If the police see contraband from outside the car, they can seize the evidence and frisk you

If you are stopped on the side of the road, and the officer sees meth sitting on your dashboard while speaking with you, he has probable cause to believe that it is evidence of a crime. This is called the Plain View Rule.

This same logic applies to weapons: if an officer sees a weapon, or if the driver admits to having a weapon in the car, that officer can do a frisk, while the driver is sitting in the car. If the officer believes that the person is armed and dangerous, the officers can order them out of the car and frisk the person.

Officers cannot extend traffic stops without reasonable suspicion

I have seen countless cases where officers issue a ticket (or a warning), and continue to ask incriminating questions, hoping to elicit a certain response from drivers. Officers cannot ask these irrelevant questions unless the driver consents. That is the law.

In U.S. v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court made clear that once an officer ends his roadside investigation, he or she must allow the driver to leave, and go about their business.

In Rodriguez, a driver was pulled over. The officer, without reasonable suspicion of any crime, extended the traffic stop, and conducted a dog sniff around the vehicle. The Supreme Court held that this traffic stop extension (and the dog sniff) was an unreasonable seizure.

Thus, in Arizona, the same is true: traffic stops cannot last too long, or go too far…and dog sniffs without reasonable suspicion!

US vs Landeros disallows officers from asking passengers to identify themselves

Thanks to a more recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case, Arizona passengers who refuse to give their ID does not automatically allow officers to extend the traffic stop. The case U.S. v. Landeros, tells of a frightening encounter with police. In the case, a car with two people was pulled over on the Pascua Yaqui Indian reservation in 2016.

When the passenger was asked for ID, she refused. This prompted the officer to “command” the occupants to exit the vehicle. The driver was charged with several crimes, including suspicion of possession of an alcohol container, failing to provide name to officers, and possession of ammunition by a convicted felon.

The 9th Circuit addressed the single question: can officers extend a traffic stop if a passenger in the vehicle refuses to identify him or herself?

In short, the 9th Circuit said no—that wanting a passenger’s ID was not a part of the mission for the traffic stop. While checking the driver’s license certainly is, a passenger’s license had nothing to do with the traffic stop.

Thus, if you find yourself pulled over as a passenger in someone else’s vehicle, it is OK for you to say “Passengers are not required to produce this information”.

Final Thoughts

Routine traffic stops have become stressful and dangerous in the United States. Arizona is no exception to this concerning trend. Arizona law enforcement, like citizen drivers, must keep calm heads during the stop. It’s alarming that people fear the possibility of not returning home after being out on our roads. But, in this day in age, this traffic stop tension has morphed into a very real fear, both nationwide and at home.

No matter who you are, officer or not, you deserve to go home at the end of the day. The last thing you should worry about is ending up dead from a routine traffic stop.

If you find yourself facing criminal charges from a traffic stop, call me at (480) 545 – 0700, or visit my website at Chuck Franklin We have over three decades of experience in these matters.

Stay safe…and stay informed.

Police officer reviewing a document during a traffic stop with a female driver looking on from inside her vehicle, reflecting a common roadside law enforcement scenario.

Contact Us

Get in touch today! We are available 24/7 and we're looking forward to hearing from you!