Many people make mistakes during a routine traffic stop that can result in facing criminal charges when they were completely avoidable. It is not surprising that motorists make strategic errors when stopped by a police officer because many drivers are unaware of their rights. We get a fair number of inquiries regarding the criteria for a lawful search that arises out of a traffic encounter with the police. We have provided some basic guidelines regarding lawful searches during a routine traffic stop.
You may be pulled over for some sort of a traffic violation, for example, running a red light, failing to signal lane change or speeding, or for some type of “erratic driving”- maybe driving over the line, sometimes called failure to maintain a single lane. Although there are many reasons for an officer to make a traffic stop, these are examples of two of typical grounds for conducting a stop. In these circumstances, the officer generally does not have any legal basis to conduct an extensive search of you or your vehicle. While the officer may scan the inside of the passenger compartment, the officer generally cannot conduct a more extensive search of the interior of the vehicle, glove compartment or the trunk of your vehicle. However, the officer does have a right to take certain precautions to protect his safety. If the officer sees you bend over or reach under the seat, the officer may check for weapons. This means that it is advisable to keep your license, registration and insurance information easily accessible so that you will not be forced to dig around and give the officer a basis to look for a weapon- a weapon that may not even exist- inside the vehicle.
If you have contraband or evidence like illegal narcotics in plain view within the passenger compartment of your car, the officer can confiscate the narcotics and search the vehicle more fully because he has probable cause to believe a crime is being committed. Even if the officer does not discover evidence of a crime in plain view, the officer may conduct a search of your vehicle if you are lawfully arrested. For example, if an officer suspects you have been drinking, the officer may ask you to perform field sobriety tests (FSTs) and submit to a breath test. If you fail these tests, the officer would have probable cause for an arrest and could conduct an inventory search of your vehicle subject to a lawful arrest. Or perhaps you have an outstanding warrant for a traffic offense and the officer takes you into custody for the warrant. The arresting officer may then conduct an inventory search of your vehicle. The purpose of an inventory search is designed to preserve the property of the defendant and to alleviate claims by individuals that the police have lost or stolen their property. Even though the stated purpose of an inventory search isn't to “find evidence” to prosecute individuals- the discovery of evidence or dangerous objects found in such a search may result in additional or new charges against the driver.
Another situation where the officer may conduct a search in a limited sense is called a Terry stop. During a Terry stop, an officer who has “reasonable suspicion” that a crime is being committed may order you to get out of the vehicle and conduct a limited pat down of your outer garments for weapons. It is important to understand that this pat down must be limited to a search for weapons. If the officer does not feel anything that is obviously a weapon, the officer may not reach into your pockets or search you further. When the officer is conducting the pat down, however, the officer may confiscate contraband like drugs if the identity of the contraband is readily apparent by touch.
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they have contraband in their vehicle is to consent to a search of the vehicle. If you are pulled over for a routine traffic violation or erratic driving, this alone is not sufficient to provide the probable cause necessary to justify an investigatory search for evidence. This is why the officer asks you to consent to a search. It is imperative that you do not grant permission for the officer to search you or your vehicle. If you have been pulled over for speeding, for example, you may receive a traffic citation and pay a fine. If you consent to a search of your vehicle, however, any contraband discovered during the search like cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin or other drugs may mean that instead of going home you go to jail/prison. Many people are intimidated when a police officer requests permission to check the trunk or glove compartment of their vehicle, but you can and should say no.
The key point to keep in mind is that even if you have contraband or evidence of criminal activity in your vehicle, a routine traffic stop does not mean that a police officer can conduct a broad search of your person or vehicle.