This is the classic “Frequently Asked Question” or “FAQ.” Hello, my name is Joseph Paletta and I am a criminal defense attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and because this question has been asked of me even more frequently than normal these past few weeks, it is appropriate to comment or blog on the subject. The scenarios wherein Police want to “talk” to, or request a statement from, a citizen come in many, many different forms. The form discussed here will be when Police want to “talk” to a driver during a vehicle stop. However, regardless of the situation, the general rule is “the less said, the better.”
It is common for Police to stop a vehicle for a Pennsylvania Vehicle Code “operator” violation, such as exceeding the speed limit or failure to stop at a traffic signal (red light or stop sign). It is equally common for Police to stop a vehicle for a Vehicle Code “mechanical” violation such as a burned out taillight or headlamp; these mechanical violations are often beyond the control and knowledge of the operator, and justify a vehicle stop even if a citizen is complying with all other Vehicle Code laws. In either scenario, Police are permitted to stop your vehicle, obtain basic operator information (i.e. license, registrations and insurance information), and even issue a citation.
It is at this point that the scenario often changes, and drivers must be aware of their rights. In the scenarios presented above, after Police issue a written citation (i.e. a speeding ticket), the purpose – or Probable Cause – of the stop has been completed. However, what frequently occurs is that Police will engage in additional questioning of the driver for the purpose of doing a search of the vehicle. Once the original Probable Cause for the stop has been exhausted, Police generally need either new Probable Cause to search your vehicle, or your consent to search the vehicle. If Police do not have new Probable Cause, nor do they have the driver’s consent, Police generally may not search the vehicle. Therefore, it is wise for a driver to refuse to consent to a vehicle search, which refusal should be made continuously, respectfully and firmly.
Another tip is, if Police continue to insist upon searching, or even threaten to tow your vehicle if the driver does not consent to a search, then a driver can inform Police that they must speak with a lawyer immediately. Generally, asking to consult with a lawyer should terminate further questioning by Police. Assuming no other justification to search exists, this generally will cause Police to “back off” their insistence on searching the vehicle.
However, sometimes Police will simply impose their authority on a driver at the scene and simply search. In that circumstance, even if a search is conducted, a driver should remain silent.. The solution to the problem lies with a hiring lawyer who specializes in Search & Seizure/Fourth Amendment law who can identify the issue, and file and litigate a Suppression Motion. For this situation, you should consult with me, Attorney Paletta, immediately.
In the near future, I will comment upon other situations where Police will want to “talk.” These situations can include a knock on your residence door, or receipt of a phone call from Police. Until you speak with a lawyer, remember the general rule: “the less said, the better.”