Don't let your traffic stop turn into a drug bust

Traffic stops are quite prevalent in this part of Tennessee, and it is not at all unusual for law enforcement officers to write tickets for multiple alleged crimes and offenses in any given traffic stop. Consequently, it serves your best interests to know your rights and respectfully assert them any time an officer pulls you over.

For instance, do officers have the right to search your car for drugs or anything else when they pull you over for an alleged traffic offense? The answer is no – with two notable exceptions. If you and/or your passengers are unwise enough to leave drugs or alcohol sitting in the officers’ plain view when they look in your car windows, they can search your car without your permission. Likewise, if you give the officers permission to search, which you do not have to do, they can search. So do not make the mistake of agreeing to a search, even when you “know” the officers will not find anything illegal anywhere in your car. While it goes without saying that you should never “mouth off” to law enforcement officials, simply decline their request to search.

Traffic stop police restrictions

By law, officers can do only the following four things when they pull you over for a traffic stop:

  1. Ask you for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance, which you must give them
  2. Investigate the traffic violation(s) for which they stopped you
  3. Check with the dispatcher to see if you have an outstanding warrant, and if you do, arrest you on that warrant
  4. Write the appropriate ticket(s) for whatever traffic violation(s) they allege you committed

The Rodriguez case and your Fourth Amendment rights

Once law enforcement officers do these four things, the traffic stop is over and they must allow you to go on your way. So said the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2015 case of Rodriguez v. United States. Officers cannot turn the traffic stop into an investigation of an unrelated supposed crime such as drug possession. They cannot hold you until they get a warrant to search your car, nor can they make you wait while they call for drug-sniffing dogs.

The Rodriguez case is just one in a long line of cases that go back to your Fourth Amendment right under the U.S. Constitution to remain free from unreasonable searches and seizures by governmental officials. A warrantless search of your car is unreasonable except under the two circumstances noted above. So is a warrantless seizure of your body, that is, your arrest.

Probable cause

To obtain either a search warrant or an arrest warrant, the officers must have probable cause to believe that you and/or your passengers are in the process of committing a crime or about to do so. In a routine traffic stop, the officers have no such probable cause. In fact, they have no reason to suspect that you did anything wrong other than allegedly commit the traffic offense(s) for which they pulled you over.

Per SCOTUS in the Rodriguez decision, the purpose of their traffic stop is to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.” Therefore, since a drug crime is totally separate from and unrelated to the traffic stop, officers cannot search for drugs or anything else. Technically, they cannot even ask you about drugs or anything else unrelated to the traffic stop, although most officers usually do, especially if you are a younger driver. You do not have an obligation to answer any such questions. Again, do not “mouth off” to the officers. Respectfully decline to answer their questions.

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