Traffic Stops & Searches

During a traffic stop can the police search your car?

Here’s a common fact pattern we see. You are driving at night and the police pull you over for some bogus reason. (you allegedly ran a stop sign, your tag light was out, you changed lanes without signaling) He walks up to your driver door and asks for your license and registration. He shines a flashlight around inside your car. He tells you the reason he made the traffic stop was for an inoperable tag light. (Tag light stops are almost always a fishing expedition which are mostly due to the neighborhood or the type of car you are driving.)

What do you do? You DO NOT start screaming and threatening law suits while you are alone at the side of the road. You DO NOT make quick movements to hide anything. You DO NOT throw anything out the window. You DO NOT reach for a stick of gum. You DO remain calm and answer the basic questions the officer asks.

What you need to know about traffic stops:

  • The officer can ask you to step out of the car while he is investigating the traffic violation.
  • The officer can keep you there until he writes the ticket.
  • He can ask for your license, registration, and proof of insurance
  • He can flash a light in your car while he is speaking to you and see if anything illegal is in “plain view”.
  • He can ask you for consent to search your car. If you say no, it’s an illegal search.
  • He can search your car if he sees something illegal in “plain view” like drugs or a weapon.
  • He can get a dog to sniff the car, but he can’t detain you and your car indefinitely until the dog arrives.

Many people don’t realize that when a police officer pulls you over only to give a traffic ticket, he cannot detain you any longer than is necessary to write that citation and let you go. Before he writes the ticket and hands it to you, he can ask you if there is anything illegal in the car. He can ask you to search the car. If you give consent, all defenses are lost.

What the police can’t do during a traffic stop:

  • Tell you he’s going to search your car, without having probable cause, like smelling marijuana. OR YOUR CONSENT!
  • Tell you he is going to do a quick “pat down” of your body unless something on you looks like it might be a weapon.
  • Make you sit there by the side of the road while he conducts some lengthy investigation that has nothing to do with your ticket (i.e. he can pull your record up to see if there is a suspended license or outstanding warrants)
  • Detain you for longer than it takes to run your record or write the ticket while waiting for a K-9 officer.

Always remember to remain calm and keep your lawyer’s number on speed dial. If arrested, your story and his will always be different. Hopefully you had a witness with you who didn’t get arrested. Our slogan “Keep Calm, Don’t Talk, and Call your Lawyer”, is always the best policy.

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