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How Long Is Too Long for a Traffic Stop?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

A traffic stop should be reasonably short, but often drivers are subjected to what may seem like hours of detention. Sitting behind the wheel interminably with a cop's spotlight pointed directly in your side view mirror, you may feel like something unlawful is going on.

There are legal standards for judging how long a police officer may hold a driver during a traffic stop, but it doesn't come down to minutes or seconds.

Here are some of the principles that can determine how long is too long for a traffic stop:

Must Not Be Unreasonably Prolonged

The U.S. Supreme Court has never given a bright-line rule with regard to how long a traffic stop can last. But even a lawful stop can become unlawful "it if is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the initial mission," the Court explained in Illinois v. Caballes in 2005. In other words, when a cop pulls you over for a traffic stop, he or she must have some reasonable suspicion that you've committed a traffic or criminal offense.

Once the stop is accomplished (i.e., your car is pulled over), then the officer must investigate the offense or issue a ticket for that offense within a reasonable timeframe. For example, if you are caught speeding and get pulled over, a police officer may not detain you for longer than is reasonably necessary to investigate that traffic offense -- unless there is new evidence of a crime that turns up during the stop.

Interestingly enough, the time it takes a drug dog to sniff a car may not be considered an unconstitutionally prolonged stop. However, the Nevada Supreme Court found in 2013 that detaining a driver after issuing a traffic warning (in order to accomplish a drug sniff) was an unreasonably long detention.

Probable Cause Can Allow More Investigation

While a detention under reasonable suspicion must be limited in time and scope to investigating or executing the offense initially observed, an officer may prolong a traffic stop if new evidence provides probable cause for arrest or search.

For example, if an officer stops a vehicle for running a red light, smells marijuana wafting from the driver's seat, and sees signs of intoxication from the driver, then that may provide probable cause to search the driver for marijuana and/or perform a FST. And these investigation steps may prolong an ordinary traffic stop for a bit longer than usual.

These are just a few of the factors that courts may use to determine whether a traffic stop took too long. If you feel like you were kept unreasonably long at a traffic stop, you may want to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.

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