When Must You Display Your License? Police Interaction, Part VIII

When Must You Display Your License?  Police Interaction, Part VIII

By Benjamin A. Tracy, Columbus Criminal Defense Lawyer and Civil Rights Attorney

This is the eighth part in a series of posts about what legal obligations you have when you interact with the police.

Situation 8

You are driving along listening to the radio.  Suddenly, flashing lights reflect off your rear-view mirror.  You pull on to the shoulder of the road and stop.  A police car stops behind you.  The officer gets out, comes over to your window, and asks to see you license.

You might wonder what to do.

The BEST answer:  Shut the car off.  Roll down the window.  Keep your hands in plain view.  If you have to go in your pocket, purse, or glove-box for the license, make sure you tell the officer what you are doing before you do it.  Get the license, hand it to him.

The CORRECT answer:  Get your license and show him.

The WRONG reaction:  Ask, “What seems to be the problem officer?”

In Ohio, the law requires that a driver “display the operator’s driver’s license, or furnish satisfactory proof that the operator has a driver’s license, upon demand of any peace officer . . . .”  In a prior post, we discussed the requirement to identify yourself to a police officer and said you should tell him only your name, address, and birthdate.  This situation is about a different requirement.  When you drive a car, you are required to be able to prove that you have the right to be driving that car.  Thus, whenever you are driving, you need to have your license with you and display it upon demand.  Thus, the CORRECT answer is to get your license and show the officer.

The BEST answer however, also includes doing things to make the officer feel secure.  Traffic stops are dangerous interactions for police officers and they are very aware of anything that makes it look like you might attempt to run over them, run away from them, or get a weapon.  For this reason, you should keep your hands in plain sight, make sure you turn off the car, and warn the officer before you move your hands to open any containers.  If your license is in your pocket, reaching for it might look like you are drawing a gun.  So tell the officer where the license is and that you are going to reach down and get it before you do.

This situation brings up an important general point about where to keep your license.  Because you have to show your license upon demand, it needs to be somewhere that you can get it while you are driving.  However, it should not be someplace where you keep private things, because anything the officer sees while you are getting the license can be used as evidence.  For instance, if you keep your license in the glove-box with a baggie of weed, and the officer sees the bag when you open the glove-box to get your license, the officer is not going to ignore the pot.  For similar reasons, you should never keep your license in a pocket or purse with things you wish to keep private because when you open the purse, or pull the license out of your pocket, there is a good chance that whatever you meant to keep private will fall-out or be seen.  Once the officer sees the private item, it cannot be unseen and the fact that the officer was not looking for it does not matter.  If the private thing is illegal, the officer will use it as evidence against you.

As mentioned, the officer is entitled by law to see the license.  Thus, the WRONG reaction is to ask nervous questions or delay in producing the license.  The officer has asked to see it, he’s entitled to see it, and you need to show it to him before you ask any questions or do anything else.  If you ask nervous questions or joke with the officer at this stage, he is likely to perceive it as an attempt to stall or delay.  This will put him on guard and will make the whole encounter more stressful for both of you.

This situation also raises an interesting point about interacting with the police and the value of knowing your rights.  A polite police officer will often say something like, “May I please see your license?”  It’s important to understand, that even though he is politely posing this as a question, it is not “really” a question.  That is, you don’t have a choice.  It’s not a request, it’s an order.  The other side of this issue though, is that an officer will often ask in exactly the same polite tone, “May I please search your car?  Would you please open your trunk?”  If you know your rights, you know that these are not orders.  These are “real” requests which you can, and should, politely refuse.

If you are under investigation, or have been arrested by any Columbus law enforcement agency, feel free to contact one of our experienced Columbus Criminal Defense Attorneys, for a free initial consultation about your legal rights and possible defenses.

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