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Police Traffic Stops and Vehicle Searches: FAQ

Chances are you will be pulled over by law enforcement at some point in your life. Seeing the flashing lights of a police car in your rearview mirror can be stressful, even for a minor traffic violation. Knowing more about your rights during routine traffic stops or potential search incidents may help reduce anxiety in these situations.

Below are some answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions regarding police traffic stops and vehicle searches.

What should I do if I am pulled over by the police?

In most instances, law enforcement vehicles will use a siren or flashing lights to indicate you are required to pull over. Make sure it is safe before pulling over to the shoulder of the road or outermost lane. Avoid sudden maneuvers that could put you, the officer, or other motorists at risk. Use your turn signal or flashers to show officers you intend to stop.

Once you stop, don't make any sudden movements that may give the officer reason to believe you may be concealing weapons or engaging in any other illegal activity. A few other things to keep in mind include:

  • Turn on your interior lights
  • Turn off the ignition
  • Leave your hands on the steering wheel
  • Wait to grab your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance until directed

If you reach for your passenger compartment or center console, an officer may think you are reaching for a weapon or to conceal drugs, paraphernalia, or other contraband.

During your conversation with the officer, stay as calm and polite as possible. You can ask why you were stopped. You want to be as average as possible. Don't do anything to make yourself stand out in the officer's mind.

It is never a good idea to try to argue with law enforcement officers or allow yourself to become angry. Losing your temper may prompt the officer to take additional action or cite you with a more severe fine.

You are not required to admit to anything. For example, you can state that you are unsure how fast you were going or can't remember if the light was yellow or red. Anything that you admit can be used against you in court, which could reduce the chances of successfully fighting your ticket.

Can my car be searched if I get pulled over?

In general, yes. There are three ways an officer has the authority to conduct motor vehicle searches after a traffic stop:

  • Consent: If an officer wants to search your car for evidence of a crime, they will ask you first for consent. There is no obligation to say yes. You can remain silent and consent cannot be implied from silence. If you do say yes, the officer has the authority to search your entire car.
  • Reasonable suspicion: If law enforcement has reasonable suspicion you are concealing something dangerous or illegal, they are allowed to perform a search of the car. This search may include places like a locked glove compartment or the trunk of your car.
  • Waiting for a warrant: Police have the option to detain you in the back of their patrol car while they wait for another officer to show up with a search warrant.

Because a car is so mobile and can threaten public safety, courts have routinely upheld warrantless searches of vehicles under an exception to the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.

If there is something incriminating in your car that the officer may find, you may want to consider withholding your consent to later challenge any criminal charges in court.

My car was impounded, can the police search it?

If your car has been towed and impounded by the police, they have the right to conduct a full and thorough search of your vehicle. This includes opening any locked compartments or containers within your car.

In these situations, police don't need probable cause to search your vehicle. This is because when law enforcement impounds a car, they are required to make a detailed inventory of everything in the vehicle. This is referred to as an inventory search. Anything found during this search can be used as evidence.

However, this often results in a lot of paperwork. Because of this, police do not often impound cars strictly to conduct vehicle inventory searches.

I was stopped at a roadblock and asked to wait to answer some questions by a police officer, can they do this?

In short: yes. Roadblocks are legal if the police use a neutral and non-inconveniencing policy to determine which vehicles are stopped. For example, if a roadblock stops each car passing through for questioning, then this would be legal. However, if police only stop cars driven by minorities, then that roadblock would be illegal.

Even at police roadblocks and checkpoints, your Fourth Amendment rights protect you from unreasonable searches.

If you are stopped at a roadblock, the police cannot single out your car to wait unless they have a good reason to believe you have engaged in criminal activity. For example, if they see bags of stolen money in plain view, they can legally ask you to pull aside.

Is a body frisk or pat-down considered part of the search of a vehicle?

In Terry v. Ohio (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court established the concept of the "Terry stop" or "stop and frisk." It found that officers are permitted to briefly detain someone if they reasonably suspect criminal activity. The purpose of the frisk is to ensure officer safety by discovering weapons and disarming a potentially armed and dangerous person.

Contraband found during a weapons pat-down, such as illegal drugs, can be used in court, depending on the circumstances. For example, if an officer feels a hard container in which a gun could reasonably be stored, they are permitted to open it to check for a weapon. If cocaine is found instead, this would likely be admissible evidence because a weapon could reasonably have been found in the container.

Does law enforcement need a search warrant for a breathalyzer test?

If an office suspects alcohol or drug impairment, they can request you take a breathalyzer test without a warrant. An officer can establish probable cause by observing any of the following signs of intoxication:

  • Erratic driving
  • Glazed or bloodshot eyes
  • Visible alcohol containers or drug paraphernalia
  • Odor of alcohol or marijuana
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired motor skills and coordination

If you fail a breathalyzer or other field sobriety tests, you can be arrested for DUI (Driving Under the Influence) or DWI (Driving While Intoxicated).

I was ticketed by the police. Should I get help from a law office?

Every situation is different. You may be able to dispute a ticket yourself, which is more easily done for minor traffic offenses like a broken tail light or speeding. If you were ticketed for a misdemeanor or a more serious offense, you may benefit from having a criminal law attorney on your side.

An experienced attorney can also determine if your constitutional rights were violated by an unlawful search or an illegal frisk.

If the stakes are high, such as too many points on your license, an attorney may be able to save you money and hardship. Contact a traffic ticket attorney if you need professional guidance.

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