What if I am Driving and the Police Pull Me Over?

Image of woman in car being pulled over by police

Please see the limitations for disclaimers and additional resources.

When can the officers pull me over?

  • If the officers know your driver's license is suspended or invalid by running your license plate.

  • If officers observe a problem with your car, such as a broken headlight, expired vehicle registration, or a defective exhaust system.

  • If officers observe you driving dangerously, such as by running red lights and stop signs, speeding, or making illegal turns.

  • If officers have a reasonable suspicion that you or someone in your vehicle committed a crime, such as theft or assault.

Jump to examples >>

Do I have to identify myself?

  • Yes, Washington law requires you to give your license, registration, and proof of insurance during a traffic stop. Failure to provide identification could result in your arrest.

When are officers allowed to search my car without my consent?

  • If it is impounded to a towing company's yard, officers may search your vehicle to make a list of what's inside.

  • Officers may search for weapons in any place you could reasonably get to while seated inside. This is similar to a frisk during a Terry stop and is designed to keep someone from grabbing a hidden gun. Officers may not open closed containers like your glove compartment or any closed bags you have in the car.

  • Otherwise, officers must seek a warrant to search your car. They may impound the vehicle while they wait but will have to show a judge there is probable cause before being allowed to search it for evidence.

Do I have to consent to letting officers search my car?

  • No - you have the right to refuse to consent to any search of your vehicle, apart from the exceptions above.

Can the officers stop me for a minor violation and then investigate me for something else?

  • Washington's state constitution prohibits "pretext" stops, which means officers may not use a minor violation to target someone for another reason. Officers must actually and independently believe the traffic stop is necessary for public safety reasons.

  • However, if officers discover evidence of an unrelated crime after the stop, they may still investigate that crime. This often happens when individuals are arrested for driving while intoxicated or driving with a suspended or revoked license.

Can the officers make my passengers identify themselves?

  • No - officers are not permitted to ask passengers for identification unless they have a reason to think the passengers have also committed a crime or violation.


Blue circle with yellow number oneTRAFFIC STOP

Officer Olsen stops a vehicle that is driving without any headlights at night. Officer Olsen asks the driver, Roger, for his license, registration, and proof of insurance. As Officer Olsen is speaking to Roger, he realizes that Roger is slurring his words and reeks of alcohol. Officer Olsen may now investigate Roger for DUI by asking him to perform sobriety tests because he has a reason to think Roger is drunk.

Blue circle with yellow number twoPRETEXT STOP

Detective Smith heard from an informant that Roger is a gang member but has no other evidence. Although Detective Smith works in the Gang Unit and never makes traffic stops, he goes to Roger's house and waits for Roger to drive away. As Roger drives away, Detective Smith stops him because his tabs expired two days ago. Detective Smith's traffic stop is unlawful because the expired tabs have nothing to do with the actual reason for the stop.

Blue circle with yellow number threeHIGH-RISK TERRY STOP

Dispatch receives a report of an armed robbery with a handgun, with the suspect fleeing the scene in a white DeLorean. Officer Olsen sees a white DeLorean speeding away from the robbery scene, driven by Marty. Officer Olsen and other officers initiate a "high risk" stop on the DeLorean, order Marty to the ground at gunpoint, detain him in handcuffs, and pat him down for weapons. Looking into the back window of the DeLorean, Officer Olsen sees a large bag of suspected crystal methamphetamine on the floorboards. Officer Olsen is allowed to detain Marty in this very intrusive way because the intrusion is proportional to the severity of the suspected crime. Officer Olsen is not allowed to reach into Marty's DeLorean and take the drugs because he does not have a search warrant, but he can tow the vehicle to SPD's Evidence Unit and request a search warrant later.  

Go back to the other scenarios >>

Probable cause: Required for officers to arrest you or receive a warrant from a judge. Probable cause does not mean the officer has proof you are guilty; it only requires that the officer have good reasons to think you probably are guilty. For example, if a crime victim identifies you to police as the suspect, that usually establishes probable cause even if there is no other evidence.
Reasonable suspicion: Required for officers to stop and briefly detain you without arresting you. Reasonable suspicion means the officer can point to specific, objective, articulable facts that suggest you have committed or are committing a crime. The reasonableness of a suspicion is evaluated from the perspective of the officer's training, experience, and the facts known to the officer at the time of the stop. Probable cause requires it to be probable that you committed a crime, while reasonable suspicion just requires the officer to explain a good reason why you might be committing a crime.
Terry stop: A seizure of a person short of an arrest, which is based upon articulable reasonable suspicion that a person has violated the law. The stop can apply to people as well as vehicles. The subject of a Terry stop is not free to leave.

Limitations: This information applies to interactions with the Seattle Police Department, but not necessarily to other law enforcement agencies. These scenarios are not mutually exclusive and may overlap - for example, police might enter a residence based on exigent circumstances, and then detain the occupants of the residence based upon reasonable suspicion of a crime.
By providing this information, OPA is not giving legal advice. Most of these situations depend on specific facts and circumstances. It is always safest to ask a lawyer about specific issues. If you need legal assistance, please contact the King County Bar Association, or seek out free legal advice at a Neighborhood Legal Clinic

Office of Police Accountability

Gino Betts, Director
Address: 720 3rd Avenue, 18th Floor, Seattle, WA , 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 34986, Seattle, WA , 98124-4986
Phone: (206) 684-8797
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