Some high-profile, controversial incidents have brought the issue of police traffic stops to light recently, including the deaths of Jermaine Carby in Brampton, Ont., and Sandra Bland in Texas.

Police shot Carby after a traffic stop, while Bland was found dead in a jail cell three days after being detained after a traffic stop in Texas.

Bland was pulled over by trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal. Their interaction, some of which is captured on a dashcam, took a turn when the officer asks Bland to put out her cigarette and she asks why she can't smoke in her own car. The trooper then orders Bland to get out of the car. She refuses, and he tells her she is under arrest.

Further refusals to get out bring a threat from the trooper to drag her out. He then pulls a stun gun and says, "I will light you up."

Bland's stop, subsequent arrest and eventual death in a Texas jail have prompted major questions — about the officer's conduct and behaviour, the way the traffic stop escalated and whether race played a role in how the white officer interacted with the 28-year-old black woman.

Legal experts in the U.S. have given varied answers on whether Bland was required to exit the car. The trooper, who has since been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, said in an arrest affidavit that she swung her elbows at him and kicked his shin after being handcuffed.

On Wednesday, Bland's sister, Sharon Cooper, told reporters the stop shouldn't have unfolded the way it did.

"I simply feel like the officer was picking on her, and I believe that is petty," she said this week as the family sought more information on the stop and Bland's time in jail.

Investigations are underway in connection with the Bland case, which had many asking when police have the right to pull drivers over, and what drivers rights are when they get stopped. 

So, what rules apply when police make traffic stops?

First, here are the basics:

  • Driving is considered a privilege, not a right, meaning police have wide discretion on the roads.
  • While legally police do have to have a reason to pull you over, in reality police can and do pull people over for no reason. "They can stop you and you don't have to have done anything wrong," says Toronto criminal defence lawyer Ryan Handlarski.
  • You must pull over if an officer wants you to.
  • You must show police your licence, registration and insurance information when asked but are not obliged to answer any other questions or provide details that would incriminate you, says Handlarski. This differs slightly from street checks, or "carding," where you do not have to provide any identification.
  • In Canada, passengers do not have to give police their identification. Police can, however, ask passengers questions. In the U.S., police can legally demand information from passengers, too.
  • In most cases, police can't search your car without arresting you first, or without a warrant. This also differs from our southern counterparts. In the U.S., police can search your car if they have reason to believe it contains evidence of a crime. U.S. police can even take your car apart. "When they say search your car, that means everything — including pulling the fenders off, pulling the gas tank out," says Scott Greenfield, a New York-based criminal defence lawyer.
  • You must obey any lawful command a police officer gives you. 

So what do you do if you're pulled over?

It's sometimes difficult to know what to do if you get pulled over by a police officer, especially if you feel you've been pulled over for no reason. One main thing to keep in mind is that traffic stops are considered risky for police.

"They don't know if they've stopped a mass murderer or a little old lady, so consequently, they will be on guard," says Greenfield.

Some general advice:

1. Comply now, fight later​

Greenfield says you should ask yourself: do you want to get home for dinner, or do you want to fight for your rights?

'You will not win a fight with a cop on the side of the road.' - Scott Greenfield, New York-based criminal defence lawyer

He says it's better to comply with a police officer and, if needed, to file a grievance later.

"You will not win a fight with a cop on the side of the road."

Greenfield describes the "good guy curve": he says most people don't understand how to interact with police, while criminals understand very well.

"Normal people think they're perfectly fine exercising their constitutional rights and engaging with police as equals. But police will tell them 'You're a criminal in my eyes.'"

2. Be polite, calm

bc-hi-110921-jermaine-carby

Jermaine Carby, 33, was fatally shot on Sept. 25, 2014, after being pulled over in Brampton, Ont. A Peel officer has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the case.

Greenfield advises people to keep their hands on the wheel and to not make sudden movements. 

Handlarski says to be polite and calm if you are pulled over, even though you can legally talk back at or swear at a police officer.

"But I don't think that's good advice," he says.

3. Think twice about consenting to a search

Greenfield says people should not consent to a search under any circumstance. He says if you consent, you will have no defence if police find something illegal. If police search without your consent, you have more grounds to defend yourself later.

4. Canadians in the U.S. — beware

Canadians must obey U.S. driving laws. If pulled over and arrested, the consequences could range from burdensome to disastrous.

"You're far from home … There's no one to bail you out. If you have to appear in court, that could take months if not years. You will have to be there or there will be a warrant for your arrest," Greenfield says.

But both Handlarski and Greenfield caution that no advice can ever guarantee safety.

"People who read simplistic instructions of how to survive a traffic stop often find themselves in deep trouble because the advice doesn't cover a minor twist that escalates into a tragedy," Greenfield says.

Black Lives Matter Toronto organizer Sandy Hudson says she often hears about police stopping black drivers.

She says it's difficult to give anyone advice in these situations.

"I want people to be able to cite their rights and stand up for themselves, but I'm not confident that this will always be the best thing to do."

She says it's difficult to gauge safety because there are too many factors at play in any given traffic stop.

Handlarkski says there are unfortunately misfits and bullies in the police force.

"It makes it very difficult for people in particular in areas that are lower income and more racialized," she says. 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said you must answer a police officer's questions when pulled over in your vehicle. In fact, you only have to provide licence, registration and insurance information but do not have to answer any other questions.
    Jul 23, 2015 11:05 AM ET