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Besides keeping your hands on the steering wheel, don't get out of the car and don't make any sudden movements

By Novella Carpenter

It's bound to happen, no matter how careful you are. One day you will be pulled over. I remember my first time: I was 16, driving to high school, and the cop clocked me going 50 mph in a 35 zone. I was horrified--not because I had broken the law, but because I was 100 yards from the entrance of my school, and all my friends and teachers drove by while I got busted. I was served a ticket and drove away. No big deal for me, a white girl out in the country, but consider the 1997 story of San Diego Chargers football player Shawn Lee. Lee, an African American, and his girlfriend were pulled over, handcuffed and detained by police for half an hour on I-15. The officer claimed that Lee was stopped because he was driving a vehicle that fit the description of a stolen car. Later, it appeared that the stolen vehicle was actually a Honda sedan--Lee was driving a Jeep Cherokee.

The ACLU lists many of these incidents of "driving while black/brown," which prove that being pulled over can turn into something very unpleasant, so that's why you should check out Beat the Heat, written by fab lawyer Katya Komisaruk. It tells you how to handle encounters with law enforcement officers, including getting pulled over.

Now, this isn't some "Should I cry or not cry?" type of book; it's about your rights. Katya should know; she was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons, spent five years in prison, then went on to graduate cum laude from Harvard Law School. According to Beat the Heat, when an officer pulls you over, he may be intent on issuing you a speeding ticket, but he also may be hoping to find evidence of a greater crime. This is called a "pretextual" stop.

So if you're cruising around with some marijuana (you wouldn't do that, would you?) and don't want to get caught, start by keeping your car extremely tight--tags updated, windshield crack-free, busted lights fixed, no loose tailpipe. This way, there's no reason for a cop to pull you over.

But let's say you do get pulled over. Besides keeping your hands on the steering wheel, don't get out of the car and don't make any sudden movements. Usually the officer will approach the car and ask you, "Do you know why I pulled you over?" Though you know it might be for speeding or doing an illegal U-turn, for the love of God, don't admit it. Don't say no, either, though. According to Komisaruk, the best thing to do is ask, "Should I get out my license, sir/ma'am?" You don't want to get them upset by being rude, but you also shouldn't answer their question or involve them in conversation.

Officers may then ask questions like "Mind if I look in the trunk?" You do not have to consent to this search, and in fact, you should simply say, "I do not consent." According to Katya, this is your last best chance to drive away. Even if you're innocent, or don't have anything illegal in your trunk, police will often look for something in the trunk that will allow them to have probable cause for searching the rest of the car or your person. Though it seems counterintuitive, refusing to open your trunk is not grounds for suspecting you are guilty of a crime, and the officer has to release you.

According to Katya, an officer might even follow slowly behind you for awhile, which often scares people into doing something illegal, and then the officer will pull you over again. Be cool. If you are arrested, though, the best and only thing to say is "I'm going to remain silent, and I'd like to see my lawyer." Katya advises that it's sometimes hard not to talk, especially when you feel like you are in trouble. "We are often uncomfortable with dead air. Police use this and will stare at you until you talk."

Another thing to bear in mind if you're arrested with your friend, is to not have any legal-strategy discussions in the squad car. Many police officers will leave suspects in the car with a hidden recording device. Sneaky! Repeat after me, "I'm going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer." Check out excerpts from Katya's book at: www.lawcollective.org.

Talking to the police isn't a good idea, but you can email Novella at [email protected]

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From the June 30-July 7, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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