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Can law enforcement search your car during a traffic stop?

Being stopped for a traffic violation in Pennsylvania is a fairly common occurrence. Usually the officer pulls you over for speeding and the consequences generally are not too serious, especially if this is your first offense. But what if there are drugs in your car? If the officer searches and finds them, you get arrested for drug possession and your life becomes very complicated.

While you may believe that officers have the right to search your car during a traffic stop, this is not true. An officer may ask to search your car, but you can and should respectfully decline to give your permission. Without it, the officer cannot search your car for drugs unless they are plainly visible when he or she looks in your windows.

The Rodriguez decision

In 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided a case entitled Rodriguez v. United States. As reported in the Washington Post, the Justices held that a law enforcement officer cannot extend the length of a traffic stop for even the shortest period of time beyond which it takes him or her to do the following:

  • Review your license, registration and proof of insurance
  • Check to see if you have any outstanding warrants
  • Issue the appropriate traffic ticket(s)

Doing anything beyond that, particularly conducting a vehicle search, violates your Fourth Amendment rights to be free of illegal searches and seizures.

The Terry decision

The Supreme Court first established this principle in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio. There the Court declared that law enforcement officers can stop and frisk anyone they have reasonable suspicion to believe is armed and committing, or about to commit, a crime.

The Justices, however, differentiated between vehicular and nonvehicular Terry stops. When officers pull you over on a traffic stop, they have no reason to think that anyone in your car is armed and committing, or about to commit, a crime. They only think that you committed a traffic violation, which is not a crime, merely an infraction.

Therefore, with no reasonable suspicion to believe that anyone is armed and committing, or about to commit, a crime, the officer has no right to search your vehicle. This is general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice.

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