Getting a traffic violation is uncomfortable and stressful for everyone. Aside from concerns about receiving a traffic violation, many people (primarily people of color) feel apprehensive about interacting with the police, fearing hostility, arrest, or even violence.
Compounding these issues is consistent confusion among the general public regarding their rights after getting stopped by the police. Understanding what law enforcement is allowed to do following a stop and what they are legally prohibited from doing can help drivers avoid unwanted and potentially illegal vehicle searches.
Reasonable Suspicion vs. Probable Cause
Whether or not a police officer can search a vehicle following a traffic stop depends on two legal concepts:
- Reasonable suspicion
- Probable cause
Reasonable suspicion is a broad standard of suspicion. A law enforcement agent only needs to reasonably believe that someone has recently committed or is about to commit a crime. If an officer has reasonable suspicion of a crime, they can briefly detain the individual or perform a search, but they can’t place the person under arrest.
Probable cause is when the commission of a crime is legally considered more likely than not. It is a higher standard. If probable cause is established, the police are legally allowed to arrest any suspects.
Example of a Legal Search Following a Traffic Stop
A police officer performs a traffic stop on a car with a broken taillight. Aside from the taillight, the car appeared to follow all traffic laws.
After approaching the window, the officer smells alcohol inside the car and on the driver’s breath. He reasonably suspects a crime has occurred and is legally allowed to search the car.
Any observable evidence of illegal activity opens the proverbial door to a legal vehicle search. Aside from smelling alcohol, other common reasons the police can legally search a vehicle include smelling drugs, observing drug paraphernalia, observing firearms, and observing any other potentially illegal item.
Example of an Illegal Search Following a Traffic Stop
A police officer performs a traffic stop on a car that failed to stop completely at a stop sign. The vehicle followed all traffic laws otherwise.
After approaching the driver, the officer observes no evidence of alcohol consumption, drug use, or other illegal activity. The driver appears coherent and sober.
The officer asks confusing, aggressive questions, causing the driver to become flustered. The officer says the driver’s behavior is now suspicious, and a vehicle search must commence.
Traffic violations such as speeding, failure to stop, or driving with a broken taillight do not give law enforcement the legal authority to search the vehicle. A vehicle search requires reasonable suspicion predicated on observable illegal behavior.
Best Practices During a Traffic Stop
Reckless suspicion is broadly defined from a legal perspective. To help prevent a vehicle search, Shelton criminal lawyers encourage drivers to follow two simple guidelines:
- Drivers should remain calm and composed. They should avoid shouting or acting belligerently.
- Drivers should provide short, clear answers to any questions. They should never volunteer information.
Long, detailed conversations allow law enforcement to discover information that can lead to reasonable suspicion, justifying a search.
An officer can also request that the driver steps out of the car for a personal search. Legal experts recommend complying in this situation. In most cases, police are allowed to frisk someone after pulling them over. However, the search is limited to the individual and must occur outside the car.
Importance of Knowing Local Laws
To effectively handle a traffic stop, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the traffic laws and regulations specific to your jurisdiction. Traffic laws can vary from state to state or even within different municipalities.
Knowing the rules of the road empowers you to make informed decisions and respond appropriately during a traffic stop. Take the time to research and understand the traffic laws in your area to ensure compliance and avoid unnecessary conflicts.
Right to Refuse a Search
It’s important to be aware that you have the right to refuse a search if an officer does not have a valid reason to conduct one. While respecting law enforcement, you can calmly and respectfully assert your rights.
Clearly and politely express your lack of consent for a search. Remember that asserting your rights should be done without escalating the situation. However, it is crucial to note that refusing a search does not guarantee that an officer won’t conduct one. Some circumstances, such as probable cause, may still allow for a search despite your objection.
Recording the Interaction
In many jurisdictions, individuals have the right to record their interactions with law enforcement during traffic stops, provided it does not interfere with the officer’s duties. Recording the encounter can serve as a valuable form of documentation, helping to ensure transparency and accountability.
If you choose to record, do so from a safe distance and remain cooperative. Be aware of any local laws or regulations regarding recording encounters with law enforcement and exercise your right responsibly.
Importance of Legal Representation
In situations where you believe your rights have been violated during a traffic stop or subsequent search, it is crucial to seek legal representation. Consulting with an experienced attorney who specializes in criminal defense can help you understand your rights, assess the circumstances of the traffic stop, and determine the best course of action.
A qualified attorney can provide guidance, protect your interests, and advocate for your rights throughout the legal process.
At best, an illegal police search is a waste of time. At worst, it can have a permanent, negative impact on someone’s life. Understanding the legal standard of reasonable suspicion and following basic guidelines when interacting with law enforcement can help drivers stay safe and protect their rights.