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  • Ellen Sakany

Reese Witherspoon Legally Blonde? Attorney says, “Not so much.”

Below is an article Ms. Sakany wrote as an instructional guide to avoid problems during a routine traffic stop by the police. It appeared in the Herald de Paris on May 5, 2013.

NEW YORK (Herald de Paris) ––  As a criminal defense attorney and former public defender, I cringed when I saw the video footage of the traffic stop and subsequent arrests of actor Reese Witherspoon and her agent husband, Jim Toth. On April 19, 2013, Mr. Toth was pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence by a Georgia state trooper. In reacting to the stop and interloping into Mr. Toth’s field sobriety test and subsequent arrest, Ms. Witherspoon did everything wrong from a criminal defense perspective. Ms. Witherspoon got out of the car, walked over to the officer, and railed about her rights as an American citizen. She also played the clichéd and haughty, “Do you know my name?” card. Clearly not star struck, the trooper arrested her for disorderly conduct.

Ms. Witherspoon’s behavior and her statements are a textbook example of how not to behave when stopped by the police. Ms. Witherspoon did correctly assert that she was an American citizen and that she had rights. However, the place to make those arguments is in the courtroom, preferably with a skilled and knowledgeable attorney. It is axiomatic that, “when you’re the hammer strike, when you’re the anvil, bear.” In a situation where a police officer is making a stop and is he or she is carrying a gun, you are always the anvil. The less said at the time of a police stop, the better.

The following points outline the best ways to handle a traffic stop so that something as minor as a traffic citation does not escalate to a charge of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, or worse. Remember, patrol officers will use force if they feel threatened and it’s always best if you are not on the receiving end of it.

1. If you see flashing lights behind you, pull over as soon as you may safely do so; 2. Turn off your ignition and turn on your hazard lights; 3. Wait for the officer to approach your car and roll down the window; 4. Greet the officer politely and use terms of respect such as “sir” or “officer;” 5. Keep your hands in plain site of the officer at all times, preferably on the steering wheel. Law enforcement officials watch a suspect’s hands because if the suspect is reaching in a pocket or under a seat, it may indicate the presence of a weapon; 6. Give the officer your license, registration, and insurance when asked; 7. Be cooperative but not talkative. Everything you say can and will be used against you. Remember that and keep your words to the absolute minimum. The appropriate time for legal arguments or explanations is in the courtroom; 8. Never try to bribe a police officer to prevent receiving a citation. You will likely be charged with that if you do; 9. Take notes immediately after the stop about everything that transpired. You may want to drive through the area again and observe whether there were any obstructions of speed limit signs or if any traffic control devices were malfunctioning. A camera is also your best ally in terms of gathering proof for future court dates; 10. You will be seeing the officer who pulled you over again at your court date. If the officer remembers you as rude, confrontational, or uncooperative, he or she may be less inclined to agree to the prosecutor giving you a reduced fine or a reduction in points.

The best way to avoid a traffic stop, potential fines, or arrest is to obey the laws of the road. Most importantly don’t drink and drive. You may lose your license and incur hefty fines, costs, and insurance surcharges. Worst of all, you may injure someone and have to live with that for the rest of your life. Have a designated driver or call a cab.

Ellen Sakany is a criminal and civil litigator practicing in New York and New Jersey. She has handled a multitude of criminal and traffic cases both as a public defender and in private practice.

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