" 1). In order to search your car, the police either need a valid search warrant or probable cause AND a valid search warrant exception to search your vehicle.
a). A search warrant is an order from a magistrate or judge permitting law enforcement to search a specific area in connection with a suspected crime.
b). Probable cause is “the reasonable belief that illegal activity has been committed.”
c). A valid search warrant exception can cover many things. For example, the police can search a vehicle if they smell marijuana (plain smell exception), see a gun in the backseat (plain sight exception), or hear someone crying for help in the trunk (plain sound exception). They can also search a vehicle for inventory purposes if it is being impounded (inventory exception), if they believe evidence might imminently be destroyed without an immediate search (exigent circumstances exception), or if there is reasonable belief that they will find evidence related to the crime for which they are about to make an arrest (search incident to a lawful arrest exception).
2). During a traffic stop, the police may search you on your person for weapons if there is reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime. “Reasonable suspicion” is a lower standard than the “reasonable belief” required to have probable cause to make an arrest.
3). Without a valid search warrant or probable cause and a valid search warrant exception, many police officers try to persuade individuals to give consent to a search. They often do this in a coercive manner, by intimating that they actually have the authority to search (when they do not) and are just asking in passing as a courtesy or “heads-up.” By giving consent, the individual is essentially giving up some privacy rights that they did not know were intact.
4). A broken taillight, expired driver’s license, or coming to a rolling stop at a stop sign is NOT a criminal offense; it is a violation that simply warrants a ticket and a fine. Because of this, the police are normally not entitled to search you.
5). You do not have to answer questions from the police! When police ask you questions, they are literally conducting an investigation as to whether you committed a crime. Although it is practical and wise to answer basic questions about yourself, you do NOT have to answer questions like, “Have you been drinking tonight?”
6). A police officer cannot detain you at a traffic stop for an unreasonable period of time without arrest. What is considered unreasonable is unclear and depends on each situation, but a good way to let the police officer know that you know your rights is by asking, “Officer, are you detaining me, or am I free to go?”
It is important to know your constitutional rights; otherwise, you may find yourself in a precarious situation. More generally, it is advisable to be calm, cool, and collected when pulled over. Place both hands on the steering wheel, take off any sunglasses, turn off any music and the car engine, look straight ahead, and only retrieve your driver’s license and registration only after being asked by the officer. If you attempt to get these items immediately after pulling your car over, the police officer is likely to be suspicious that you are attempting to hide something.
Police Traffic Stops: Protect Your Rights
Being pulled over by the police can be a nerve-wracking and sometimes scary experience. Here are some of the basics about what the police CAN and CANNOT do when you get pulled over:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joseph C. Maya, Esq.
Joseph C. Maya is the Managing Partner at Maya Murphy, P.C., and handles cases involving these legal issues in New York and Connecticut.
Copyright Maya Murphy, P.C.
Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws and.how they may affect a case. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.