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What if Someone Refuses to Get Out of Their Car When Pulled Over?

Motorists must obey basic commands, but the law in this area is vague.

An obscure provision in the Texas Transportation Code, Section 542.501, states that “A person may not willfully fail or refuse to comply with a lawful order or direction of a police officer.” This law is consistent with the Fifth Amendment, which gives people the right to remain silent. This right includes the right to physical silence, such as appearing in a lineup. However, courts consistently allow states to enact reasonable restrictions in this area.

This provision contains three different requirements, which are outlined below. The state must prove each element of a 542.501 infraction and all other criminal offenses beyond any reasonable doubt. If a Fort Worth criminal defense lawyer creates a reasonable doubt on any one of these three elements, the defendant is not guilty as a matter of law. In these cases, attorneys usually leverage that reasonable doubt to obtain a favorable plea bargain and thus avoid the risk of a trial.


Most criminal offenses in Texas, with the exception of DUI, traffic infractions, and other regulatory crimes, have a mens rea (criminal state of mine) requirement, which varies in different cases.

Basically, “willfully” is a state of mind somewhere between intentionally and maliciously. So, the state does not have to show pure malice, but it must prove that malice is like the mustard on a hamburger. When jurors take a bite, they must be able to taste the mustard, and not just the meat or the cheese or the bun.

Most modern cars and trucks are all but hermetically sealed. If the windows are up, it is almost impossible to hear outside noises, such as passing traffic, loud music, or a “step out of the car” verbal command.

The circumstances matter. If the officer used a loudspeaker or issued that command as they were practically at the driver’s door, the defendant almost certainly heard the officer and chose to ignore the officer. If the officer was further back, the defendant had a hearing impairment, background noise obscured the command, or the defendant had the radio on, a Fort Worth criminal defense lawyer may be able to use the “I didn’t hear you” defense in court.

Fail or Refuse

Willfully is in a gray area, and so is fail or refuse. The law does not require complete failure or refusal. However, if the defendant doesn’t move fast enough to suit the officer, that is probably not a failure to obey a lawful order.

Assume Officer Nick, who is in an unmarked car, turns on his flashing lights behind Karen, who immediately pulls over to the side of the road. When Officer Nick tells her to get out of the car, she hesitates because it is dark, the flashing lights are in her eyes, and she cannot clearly see that Officer Nick is a cop.

If she does not immediately get out of the car, Officer Nick will almost certainly arrest her. However, jurors are generally more sympathetic.

Partial failure or refusal to obey a lawful order could also be a Section 38.03 violation (resisting arrest), which is a slightly more serious infraction. However, the state must prove the defendant used force while resisting arrest. Not immediately opening the door is not the use of force.

Lawful Order

“Step out of the car” is a lawful order if the officer has reasonable suspicion, which is basically an evidence-based hunch of criminal activity.

A traffic violation, however minor, is reasonable suspicion in a roving stop. A warrant check is reasonable suspicion as well. At a DUI roadblock, reasonable suspicion is evidence of alcohol consumption, like bloodshot eyes or an odor of alcohol.

Reach Out to a Tarrant County Criminal Defense Attorney

People must step out of the car upon a police officer’s command, but these legal cases have several moving parts. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Fort Worth, contact the Law Office of Kyle Whittaker.