Grounds for Traffic Stops and Searches and Protecting Your Rights

Being pulled over by a police officer can be a nerve wracking experience for any driver, and especially so for someone who has never been pulled over or is unsure of what their rights are during a traffic stop. However, when equipped with the knowledge of how traffic stops should be conducted by police officers and what your rights are during a traffic stop, in most cases you can drive away relatively unscathed.

Reasons Why a Police Officer Can Stop You on the Road

A police officer cannot stop motorists on a whim – there are legal parameters in place that give police officers specific reasons to pull over a driver. A police officer is allowed to stop a motorist when:

  • Reasonable suspicion exists: This means that a driver’s behavior is so erratic – such as driving extremely slow or weaving between lanes – that the police officer believes the driver may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol or is in the process of committing some other crime.
  • A similar vehicle has been reported and described as being involved in the commission of a crime: If there is reasonable suspicion to believe that your car resembles the vehicle connected with a criminal offense and/or there is reasonable suspicion to believe the occupants in the car match any descriptions of suspects, you may be pulled over on the basis of an investigative stop.
  • A driver has been spotted committing a moving violation: If you are caught doing things like speeding or running through a red light or a stop sign, a cop may pull you over. Also, you can be pulled over if your car has an equipment violation like a burned-out tail light or if your registration is not current.

Know Your Rights: Do’s and Don’ts of Traffic Stops

  • Do remain calm and be respectful: If you behave in a way that the police officer finds suspicious or aggressive, you may make the situation worse.
  • Know what constitutes probable cause to search your vehicle: If you make an admission to police that there are illegal drugs such as marijuana or cocaine in your car, police have probable cause to conduct a search of your vehicle. The smell of marijuana by a police officer and an alert to the presence of drugs in your car by a drug sniffing dog also gives police officers probable cause to search your car. Also, if police officers see evidence of drugs, drug paraphernalia, weapons or other illegal items in plain view in your car, they will have probable cause to search your car. Finally, police officers have probable cause to search your car if you give them consent or permit them to search your car. If you are engaged in or are permitting illegal activity in your car such as carrying drugs or guns, you are substantially increasing the likelihood of giving police officers probable cause to search your vehicle. Most importantly, know that you do not have to allow an officer to search your car or consent to a search of your car.
  • Don’t make any sudden moves during the stop: Keep your hands on the steering wheel of your car until the officer asks for your license and registration. If your seat belt is undone, don’t try to put it on because it can look like you are reaching for a weapon. Suspicious activity will justify reasonable suspicion for officers to detain you at a traffic stop to conduct further investigation, which may include bringing a drug dog to the scene to check for drugs.
  • Protect your right to remain silent: Just as with any other interaction with the police, you have the right to remain silent. You are not obligated to answer any questions other than basic identification information, and you can tell the officer that you are going to remain silent. Even if you think you did something wrong, don’t admit it, and ask if you are free to go.

If you were stopped by police and received a ticket or would like to know more about your rights during traffic stops, contact a criminal defense lawyer with experience in traffic violation and traffic crime cases.