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Make sure your traffic stop does not lead to drug charges

If you are pulled over on a Florida road for an alleged traffic violation, there are things you should and should not do. The officer can ask for your driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance, and you must provide these. The officer likewise can check to see if you have outstanding warrants and arrest you if you do. If you have no warrants, the traffic investigation is over and the only further thing the officer can do is write the ticket(s). He or she can do nothing else, such as ask you questions about unrelated matters or search your vehicle.

The most important things you should not do during a traffic stop include the following:

  • Never “mouth off” to the officer.
  • Never admit anything.
  • Never consent to a vehicle search. If the officer asks if he or she can search it, respectfully decline to grant your permission.

Warrantless searches and irrelevant questions

The only time a law enforcement officer can search your vehicle without your permission or without a warrant is if you are unwise enough to have illegal substances such as drugs or alcohol containers in plain view where the officer can see them by looking in the windows. Technically, he or she cannot ask you and your passengers if you are carrying illicit substances.

Many officers, however, do ask such questions, particularly if you and your passengers are young people. While technically you do not have to answer them, refusing to do so could make you seen uncooperative, belligerent or evasive, giving the officer reasonable suspicion to detain you while obtaining a search warrant and/or drug sniffing dogs. Therefore, a simple “no” is sufficient.

Traffic stops versus Terry stops

The 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio gives officers the right to stop and frisk persons they have reasonable suspicion to believe have a weapon and are committing, or about to commit, a crime. Even then, however, the justices distinguished between vehicular and nonvehicular stops. When an officer pulls you over for a traffic stop, he or she has no reason to suspect that you are armed or in the process of committing a crime. Consequently, the officer has no right to search your vehicle or ask you questions unrelated to the traffic infraction itself.

The 2015 Supreme Court decision in Rodriguez v. United States further clarified what officers can and cannot do during a routine traffic stop. The Court held that an officer cannot extend a traffic stop beyond the time it takes or should take to make the traffic investigation, check for outstanding warrants and write the appropriate ticket(s).

Fourth Amendment rights

All this is based on your Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. The Rodriguez court held that since the fundamental mission of a traffic stop is to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly,” officers cannot extend the traffic stop longer than the time it takes them, or reasonably should take them, to accomplish that purpose.

The justices said that searching your vehicle or bringing in drug sniffing dogs is attempting to “detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.” It has nothing to do with the core mission of the traffic stop. Consequently, such activity is illegal and unconstitutional. The officer’s authority to conduct a traffic stop ends at the point where he or she completes, or should have completed, the traffic investigation.

Should the officer search your vehicle without your consent or insist on asking you questions about drugs or other unrelated matters, again, do not “mouth off” or belligerently announce that you know your rights and he or she cannot do what they are doing. Such behavior can get you into trouble and may even result in your arrest. Instead, be respectful and say as little as possible. At your trial, it will be up to your attorney to make a Rodriguez challenge to the officer’s actions and ask that anything found and seized as a result is not usable evidence.

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Jason Rogozinski

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