The Legalities of a Traffic Stop – What You Need to Know

The Legalities of a Traffic Stop – What You Need to Know

Even law-abiding citizens may find themselves stopped by police for a traffic violation.  It’s important for citizens to know their rights when this occurs. Police officers may stop a motorist for any rules-of-the-road infraction.  Known as a pre-textual stop, it is often used by law enforcement as a method to initiate a search of an automobile suspected to involve criminal activity. If a police officer has any valid basis for detaining a motorist, for example, a broken taillight, speeding, or running a red light, the stop is valid, no matter what the officer’s real purpose might be.

DETENTION LENGTH

There is no brightline rule on how long the officer may detain a motorist, but the duration of a traffic stop must be temporary and last no longer than necessary to accomplish the purpose of the stop.  In Tennessee, if the time, manner, or scope of the investigation exceeds what is “reasonable,” a constitutionally permissible stop may be transformed into one that violates both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. Officers are permitted to ask for driver’s license and vehicle registration.  As to the scope of questioning, the court will look at both the subject and quantity of the questioning. If questions are directed to protect officer safety, they will be considered diligent and reasonable.

CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution protect against unlawful searches and seizures.  However, a narrow exception carved out for motor vehicles allows an officer to search without a warrant provided the officer can articulate probable cause. The public policy behind this is automobiles have a lower expectation of privacy as opposed to residences.  The mobile nature and the fact that vehicles are driven on public roadways boost this theory. Probable cause means the officer must have reasonable grounds that a crime has occurred. Common examples include the sight and smell of drugs or alcohol. A mere traffic violation does not trigger probable cause to search a vehicle or its occupants.  For instance, just because a motorist is pulled over for speeding does not give the officer an automatic right to search the vehicle. Likewise, just because a motorist is stopped for a broken taillight and it is discovered that the driver’s registration is expired does not create reasonable grounds for a search.

THE CANINE CAVEAT

Our Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed that a canine sweep around a legally detained vehicle does not constitute a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and need not be supported by probable cause.  Furthermore, a positive alert by a trained narcotics canine provides probable cause to conduct a search.

NEVER CONSENT TO A SEARCH

One pitfall for drivers is consenting to a search.  If a driver consents to a search, there is no warrant requirement.  Officers are not required to inform motorists about their right to refuse because a motorist is not under arrest at this questioning stage.  Motorists that are stopped always have the right to refuse a search request by stating “Officer, I do not consent to any searches.” If a motorist refuses consent, but the officer searches the vehicle and finds illegal items, a motion to suppress is available whereby the evidence shall not be admitted if it was obtained illegally. Unless the prosecution has other evidence, the motorist’s charges will be dismissed. In addition to not consenting to a search, here are a few more helpful tips when stopped by law enforcement:  1. Be polite to the officer. 2. Stay calm. 3. Have your license, registration and proof of insurance readily available. 4. Do not display any signs of impairment. 5. Never jump out of the vehicle. 6. Do not be intimidated.

 

The bottom line: Never consent to a search; if asked by law enforcement, there’s a good chance that there’s not enough probable cause to obtain a search warrant.

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