There are so many traffic laws that it is nearly impossible to comply with all laws at all times. Most traffic laws applicable to drivers are found in KRS Chapters 186, 186A, 187, 188, 189, 189A, 281A, and 304.39, meaning that there are literally hundreds of pages of laws for which drivers may be held liable. It is unrealistic to suggest merely that drivers abide by the traffic laws. Instead, the following tips should help drivers avoid the issuance of a ticket or will put them in a good position to challenge a ticket if issued.
Do Not Give an Officer a Reason to Pull You Over
A driver can relatively easily ensure his or her vehicle is “highway ready.” By doing so, this eliminates reasons to pull over a driver that may be obvious to a passing officer. The types of offenses an officer can observe from the exterior of the vehicle – whether the vehicle is in motion or not – are vehicle equipment offenses or certain offenses pertaining to a driver’s license, registration, or insurance. See Kentucky Traffic Offenses and Penalties for an extensive list of the more commonly cited offenses in these categories.
The recommendation here is to check the vehicle before driving. For instance, a driver should:
- Ensure that both headlights work. See KRS 189.040
- Ensure that all brake lights work. See KRS 189.055
- Ensure that the rear license plate is illuminated when the car lights go on and that the current annual registration decal is affixed to the plate. See KRS 186.170
- Not drive with temporary plates past their expiration date. See KRS 186A.100
These confirmations are especially important in areas of town and during the times of the day when officers are more prone to make traffic stops for such relatively minor offenses. For example, officers seem more willing to pull over a driver on a weekend night for a tail lamp violation since the stop may be a pretext to check for drunk driving.
If Pulled Over, Do Not Make the Officer Want to Give You a Ticket
After being pulled over, most drivers are a combination of nervous and angry. If a driver acts nervously, the officer may become suspicious and prolong the stop. If a driver responds to the stop with hostility, the officer may be inclined to issue all potential citations. For example, an uncooperative driver may receive a citation for failure to notify the Department of Transportation of a change of address, whereas the officer may omit this charge against other drivers. See KRS 186.540. An officer may also note in the citation when a driver was irate, which may make it more difficult to work with the prosecutor or succeed at trial if the ticket is later contested.
The thing to remember is that officers have tremendous discretion in making arrests and issuing citations. It’s not uncommon to observe another driver go through a red light while a police cruiser at the same intersection does nothing. If pulled over, it is best to stay calm and do the things that help the officer do his or her job. For instance:
- Signal and then pull over as far to the right as possible so the officer may safely approach the driver’s side window on the left.
- Turn off the car and any music playing. If it is dark outside, turn on the car’s interior lights.
- Have your license, registration, and proof of insurance ready to hand to the officer. But if the officer quickly approaches the vehicle, place your hands clearly on the steering wheel so the officer knows you are not hiding items or reaching for a weapon.
- Answer the officer’s questions clearly and calmly. Request permission to open the glove box, if necessary. If there are any passengers in the car, they should remain silent.
Finally, do not give the officer an opportunity to add additional charges. This means do not take off your seat belt or use your cell phone after pulling over. An annoyed officer may add a failure to wear seat belts charge or a distracted driving charge to the citation. See KRS 189.125(6) and KRS 189.292(2). It would then be the driver’s word against the officer’s as to whether such actions were taken before or after the engine was turned off.
If Pulled Over, Do Not Make a Statement that Could Later be Used Against You
While a driver should completely and respectfully answer the officer’s questions, a driver should not volunteer incriminating information. Officers usually write down any statement made by the driver which demonstrates that a traffic law was broken. A person’s own statement against his or her interest is generally admissible. See Kentucky Rules of Evidence 801A(b). Should the case go to trial, the officer’s notations may be used as a “recorded recollection” that will usually be admissible in court. See Kentucky Rules of Evidence 803(5)and 612. The driver’s own statements are usually the best evidence of guilt at trial because, considering how many traffic stops they make, officers often forget the circumstances surrounding individual tickets.
It is sometimes difficult to determine what information may be incriminating. The vast majority of traffic offenses are strict liability offenses, meaning that the driver may be guilty even if he or she did not know the law. Thus, it is best to avoid offering any statement or confirming or denying an officer’s statement to prevent unknowingly volunteering incriminating details.
It is important to note that an officer may become annoyed if a driver is dishonest or acts oblivious to the reasons for the traffic stop. Officers have a great deal of discretion, and an annoyed officer may be more likely to issue a ticket instead of a warning. For instance, a driver who claims surprise after clearly driving through a stop sign may get on the officer’s bad side. Consequently, while a driver should avoid volunteering incriminating statements, he or she should seek to remain credible with the officer.
Officers commonly ask, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” A driver avoids self-incrimination and retains credibility by simply responding, “No I do not.” A driver should otherwise avoid confirming an officer’s leading questions by responding with “okay” or “I see.”
If Issued a Ticket, Immediately Prepare to Contest the Ticket
All elements of each traffic offense must be proven for there to be a finding of guilt. The officer will note what he observed the driver doing and other information about the circumstances of the traffic stop on the ticket. Depending on the nature of the offense, a driver may make certain observations at the scene of the incident or extract certain information from the officer that will be relevant if the ticket is later contested.
After being pulled over, a driver should observe the surroundings and try to remember as many details as possible. Such details may be preserved by a written memo or diagram made shortly after the stop. Generally relevant details include the traffic conditions, road conditions, weather and visibility, etc. Relevant details for speeding include the officer’s position when the driver’s speed was measured, whether the speed limit sign was obscured, whether there were other cards driving even faster, etc. Of key importance are the reasons why the driver was driving as observed. For instance:
- The driver was speeding temporarily to pass a truck with a loosely-attached trailer.
- The driver had to swerve to avoid hitting an animal in the road.
- The driver was in the middle of the road when the light turned yellow and had to complete a left turn after the light turned red.
A driver may also benefit from finding out the officer’s basis for the stop. If it was for speeding, it often helps to know how the speed was measured. If by radar, the driver may ask to see the radar gun reading and even the calibration log during the stop. By asking questions, the driver may elicit information from the officer that does not match up with the offense(s) charged. The driver may use a cell phone to record the officer’s statements. In Kentucky, a person may record a conversation to which he or she is party. This does not constitute the crime of “eavesdropping” which involves intentionally using any device to record the oral communication of others without the consent of at least one party thereto. See KRS 526.010 and KRS 526.020.