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Law Firm of Scott T. Moorey
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Can law enforcement search for drugs during a traffic stop?

If you are a resident of Fort Myers or Cape Coral, Florida, or one of the many “snow birds” who spend substantial time in this part of the country during the winter months, you know that getting pulled over by a law enforcement officer for an alleged traffic offense is not an uncommon occurrence. However, you need to make sure that your traffic stop does not turn into a drug charge as well as one or more traffic tickets.

The best way to do this is by knowing your rights and also knowing what officers can and cannot do during a traffic stop. They have the right and authority to do the following things:

  • Ask for your driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance, all of which you must produce
  • Investigate your alleged traffic violation
  • Check to see if you have any outstanding warrants
  • Write the appropriate ticket(s)

Other than these things, they can do nothing else, such as search your car for drugs or detain you until drug-sniffing dogs can arrive at the scene. Technically, they cannot even ask you questions about drugs or anything else not directly related to your alleged traffic offense, although many officers do. If this should happen to you, do not “mouth off” to the officers or belligerently insist that you know they cannot do what they are doing and you therefore refuse to talk with them. Such behavior not only makes you look uncooperative, but also suspicious. It could, in fact, lead to your arrest. Simply decline in a respectful manner to answer their questions.

Warrantless searches

Likewise, respectfully decline to consent to a search of your vehicle should they ask. The only time an officer can search your vehicle without your permission and/or without a warrant is if you and/or your passengers were so unwise as to have alcohol containers or drugs plainly visible in your vehicle when the officer looks in the windows.

Terry stops

The reason why officers can only conduct a traffic investigation when they pull you over for an alleged traffic offense is because the U.S. Supreme Court said so in its landmark Terry v. Ohio ruling in 1968. In that case, the justices gave law enforcement officials the right to stop and frisk anyone they reasonably suspect is armed and committing or about to commit a crime. They also said, however, that when an officer pulls you over for an alleged traffic offense, (s)he has no reason to suspect that you or your passengers fit that description. Consequently, (s)he cannot search your vehicle or ask you anything unrelated to the traffic stop itself.

The Supreme Court has handed down subsequent decisions dealing with Terry stops. In one of them, the 2015 case of Rodriguez v. United States, SCOTUS further clarified what officers can and cannot do during a traffic stop. In that case, the justices ruled that officers cannot extend the duration of a traffic stop even a very short period of time beyond that which it takes them, or reasonably should take them, to conclude their investigation of the alleged traffic offense itself. They cannot expand their investigation into one relating to drugs or any other crime.

Your Fourth Amendment rights

These Terry stop limitations emanate from your Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, including the seizure of your body via a warrantless arrest. The Rodriguez decision specifically held that the fundamental purpose of a traffic stop is to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.” Consequently, any attempt by law enforcement officers to “detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing” is both illegal and unconstitutional since it has nothing to do with the purpose of the traffic stop.

Should things go bad and your traffic stop results in drug charges as well as traffic tickets, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney at your first opportunity. At your trial, (s)he can challenge the officers’ actions based on the Terry and Rodriguez rulings and request the exclusion of all contraband evidence they seized as a result thereof.

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