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DUI and Traffic Stops: What Passengers Need to Know

On Behalf of | May 4, 2013 | Uncategorized

Reese Witherspoon’s recent arrest for disorderly conduct illustrates the need to properly behave when you are a passenger in a vehicle stopped by the police. Obviously, only the driver can be charged with DUI or a traffic violation, but quite frequently, passengers will end up being charged with offenses as well. Yet a lot of these charges could have been prevented, had the passengers done the right thing, or perhaps more correctly stated, not done the wring thing. Sometimes, the cops force the issue, while other times, such as in Ms. Witherspoon’s case, the passenger brings about her own misfortune. 

Rule number one for passengers: keep your mouth shut. Do not say a word. If the police officer addresses you, invoke your right to remain silent. A lot of times, police will want to check passengers to see if they can find drugs or drug paraphernalia. If the cop asks whether there are any drugs in the car or on your person, do not say yes! You are under no obligation to incriminate yourself or others in the vehicle. You also should not consent to a search of your person. The police can search your person only if they have reason to suspect that you may be armed or they have exigent circumstances. Neither of these factors are likely to be present.

If the passengers are underage, the police will try to determine if they have been drinking. If you are underage and have been drinking, you are under no obligation to confess, even if the cop leads you to believe that it is in your best interest to “come clean” or “be honest.” In a lot of cases, there is insufficient evidence to sustain an underage drinking conviction absent the defendant’s confession.

The advice I have given so far is not readily apparent to the average citizen, and that is exactly why so many passengers end up facing charges, which they otherwise could have avoided. This is in marked contrast to Ms. Witherspoon’s recent behavior. It should be readily apparent to everyone what she did wrong. Ms. Witherspoon literally “talked herself into a charge.” This happens more often than you might think in DUI stops, for the simple reason that passengers are often more intoxicated than the driver. In the absence of a designated driver, sometimes the driver is simply the one who is least drunk. Given Ms. Witherspoon’s wholesome reputation in an era where the tabloids will rip apart anyone they can, I believe she is sincere when she says that she never would have been so rude and disrespectful had she not been drunk.

If you are a passenger in a stopped vehicle, you should not let the cops bully you into a confession or into handing over contraband. That is not exactly obvious. Most people, especially easily intimidated, young people, do not realize they can politely decline a police officer’s attempts to have them surrender their constitutional rights. Just as you should not let a cop bully you, you should likewise never try to bully a cop! If that tactic does not work for an internationally known celebrity, it will certainly never work for you.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, with extensive experience in search and seizure issues.

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