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Understanding your rights during a traffic stop: Part II

In today's post, we'll be continuing and concluding a discussion that we started last week. The death of an African-American woman named Sandra Bland has been a national news story lately. Ms. Bland was pulled over for a minor offense, had a negative interaction with the police officer and was arrested rather aggressively. She later died in jail under circumstances that many find suspicious.

This story has raised a lot of public discussion about one's legal rights during a traffic stop (or when detained by police in general). Today's post will focus on searches as well as general conduct suspects can display to protect themselves from an escalating situation that could get out of control.

Under the Fourth Amendment, Americans are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement. Generally speaking, police must have either a search warrant or probable cause in order to legally conduct a search of your property.

During a traffic stop, an officer might ask, somewhat casually: "Do you mind if I take a look inside the car/trunk?" Even if it was phrased casually, the average person might think that they are required to comply. But this may not be the case. If the officer asks for permission rather than telling you that he's going to search your vehicle, you often have the right to say no. The one caveat is that the officer may not need your permission to conduct a search after you have been arrested.

Finally, there are many things we can learn from the numerous, tragic killings of unarmed suspects by police over the past couple years. Perhaps the most important lesson is that doing your best to remain calm and to appear non-threatening could just save your life. To be sure, police officers should be the ones who keep cool heads and work to defuse the situation. But sadly, this is not a guarantee - especially for minority suspects.

If you have been stopped, detained or arrested by police, it is a good idea to stay as calm and polite as you can. Moving slowly and keeping your hands visible will reduce the likelihood of a police officer reacting with injurious or deadly force.

Remember that if your civil rights have been violated during an interaction with police, you probably can't do much about it in the moment. However, you should bring your concerns to an experienced criminal defense attorney. He or she can hear your side of the story and ensure that your best interests are represented going forward.

Source: TIME, "What to Do If You Get Pulled Over by a Cop," Jason Williamson, July 23, 2015

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