Know Your Rights During a Colorado Traffic Stop
Criminal defense attorneys agree: Don’t give consent to a searchBy Carly Nairn | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 12, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Timothy R. Bussey and Arnulfo D. Hernández
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- The Importance of the Initial Interaction
- Strategically Answer the Police Officer’s Questions
- What Are Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause?
- Drug Rules and the Road
- Find an Experienced Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer
There are many reasons why a traffic cop may pull you over. What happens as a result of that stop is greatly affected by what you may say or do when answering their questions. It’s important to know your rights during a stop and what a police officer is permitted—and not permitted—to do.
“You see everything around here, unfortunately,” says Arnulfo D. Hernandez, a criminal defense attorney at Hernandez & Associates in Denver. “You’ll see, for example, claims of an obstructed view. That is when your windshield is cracked. You see a lot of those, and you do see a fair amount of profiling.”
But no matter the reason they pulled you over, he adds, know your rights. “Even though some law enforcement officers don’t believe this, you do have a right to record a traffic stop—both visually and audibly. And you do have a [constitutional right] to remain silent, [and] that right also extends to your passengers,” Hernandez says.
The Importance of the Initial Interaction
Those first few moments after an officer reaches the car window to engage in conversation are crucial in establishing what kind of interaction it is going to be.
“It’s important for people to understand that the police are trained that anytime they’re making a stop, there’s a safety issue,” says Timothy R. Bussey, a criminal defense lawyer at The Bussey Law Firm in Colorado Springs. “They’re watching you, watching your hand movements to make sure that no one’s pulling out any kind of weapon or placing the officer in danger.”
Be polite, Bussey adds, and ready to present your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.
Strategically Answer the Police Officer’s Questions
“If an officer asks, ‘Do you know why I pulled you over?’ and you say no, then that can mean you don’t know you were not speeding,” says Bussey. “So, the answer should be, ‘Officer, with respect to you, with respect to your investigation, I’m not going to answer any questions.’ And if the officer says, ‘Can I search your car?’ the answer is, ‘Officer, with respect, no, I’m not going to allow you to search my car.’”
Bussey says he sees a lot of his clients consent to a search when they shouldn’t.
“Police have been known to say, ‘Hey, can I get your consent to search? And if I don’t get your consent, I’m just going to get a search warrant anyway.’ I mean, they make it seem like it’s an inevitability, which it’s not. If they’re going to get a warrant, have them get a warrant.”
What Are Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause?
Hernandez and Bussey agree there are many behaviors or incidents that may give an officer “reasonable suspicion” to ask to search a motor vehicle or further investigate.
“The officer may try to initiate a search even though you tell them no,” says Hernandez. “But that’s usually when there are some very specific facts or circumstances that may [make it] appear other crimes are being committed. For example: I’m very nervous. I drop my ID on the floorboard. I shake when I give them the ID. That’s an indication that, ‘OK, is there something else going on?’”
Reasonable suspicion can increase to probable cause if an officer can articulate the reason why they feel a crime is occurring, Hernandez says. “They don’t have to see a joint lit to say, ‘There’s the evidence.’ They can say, ‘I smell something like marijuana.’ That’s enough.” With probable cause that a vehicle has contraband—drugs, weapons, open containers of alcohol, stolen property, etc.—police can engage in a warrantless search.
Drug Rules and the Road
Recreational marijuana is legal to possess and use under Colorado state law, and Denver is one of the few cities in the nation where psilocybin mushrooms are decriminalized. Even with these legal rights, a traffic stop can end up being a lot more than a fix-it ticket for a broken taillight.
If any amount is seen by an officer in the car, they may bring up a line of questioning about how much you have consumed and ask to search your car. Depending on the officer and how you answer, you may be asked to perform a sobriety test or law enforcement may call a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) to the scene.
“It’s highly dependent on the jurisdiction,” Hernandez says, “and highly dependent on the officer.”
Learn more about Colorado DUI-drug laws.
Find an Experienced Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you’re facing criminal charges arising from a traffic violation or DUI arrest, strongly consider speaking with an experienced attorney for legal advice as soon as possible. You can use the Super Lawyers directory to find a local attorney experienced in Colorado law.
Additional Traffic Violations articles
Find top lawyers with confidence
The Super Lawyers patented selection process is peer influenced and research driven, selecting the top 5% of attorneys to the Super Lawyers lists each year. We know lawyers and make it easy to connect with them.Find a lawyer near you