Car Searches by Police Following a Valid Stop

If you're pulled over for a traffic violation, can the police search your car?

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Based on the mobility of cars and the potential risks of traffic stops both for police officers and citizens, judges are reluctant to second-guess an officer’s decision to pull a driver over and search the driver and passengers.

Police officers who detain motorists for traffic violations typically issue tickets and allow them to proceed. However, if they have probable cause to believe that motorists have committed a traffic offense, police officers have the power to arrest and search motorists (Virginia v. Moore, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2009).

Even if they plan only to issue a ticket, police officers can order drivers and any passengers to get out of a car. If police officers “reasonably believe” that drivers or passengers might be carrying weapons, they can conduct a short “frisk” (pat down the car’s occupants) (Maryland v. Wilson, U.S. Sup. Ct. 1998). However, police officers cannot search a car without a warrant based on a traffic violation unless they have reason to believe that the car contains a weapon or evidence of crime that someone other than the driver might dispose of (Arizona v. Gant, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2009). A traffic stop generally continues until the police officer tells the driver that he or she is free to leave. Before telling the driver that a stop has ended, police officers can briefly question the driver and passengers about matters unrelated to the purpose of the stop (Arizona v. Johnson, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2009).

On the other hand, police officers cannot use traffic stops as a pretext to launch extensive investigations. Unless the police have probable cause to believe that a car or its trunk contains weapons or contraband, the police cannot search a car that has been pulled over for a traffic violation. Similarly, unless police officers have probable cause to believe that a driver or passenger has committed a serious crime, the officers cannot use the stop as a pretext to interrogate the car’s occupants about other possible crimes.

Valid and Invalid Car Stops

Example: Officer Colombo pulls a car over for making an illegal left turn. Inside the car are four teenagers. The officer has no reason to believe that criminal activity has taken place. Nevertheless, Officer Colombo orders the driver and passengers out of the car. As one of the passengers gets out of the car, a packet of cocaine falls out of his shirt pocket. Officer Colombo arrests that teenager for possession of illegal drugs. The arrest and seizure of the drugs is valid. Officer Colombo had the right to order the occupants out of the car. Once the packet of cocaine fell out of the teenager’s pocket and was in plain view, Officer Colombo had the right to make the arrest.

Example: Officer Colombo pulls a car over for making an illegal left turn. Inside the car are four teenagers. The officer has no reason to believe that any of the occupants are armed or involved in criminal activity. Nevertheless, Officer Colombo orders the driver and passengers out of the car and frisks them. During the frisk, the officer feels what he believes to be a weapon in the jacket pocket of one of the teenagers. The officer reaches in, pulls out a packet of cocaine, and arrests the teenager for possession of illegal drugs. The arrest is invalid. Officer Colombo had the right to order the car’s occupants out of the car, but had no basis to conduct a frisk. And, because a frisk can’t be justified by what it turns up, the arrest based on the illegal frisk is itself illegal.

Example: Officer Colombo pulls a car over for making an illegal left turn. Inside the car are four teenagers. The officer had received a police radio call indicating that four youths had robbed a liquor store and escaped in a car resembling the one pulled over. Based on that information, Officer Colombo orders the driver and passengers out of the car and frisks them. In the course of one of the frisks, the officer feels what he believes to be a weapon in the jacket pocket of one of the teenagers. The officer reaches in, pulls out a packet of cocaine, and arrests the teenager for possession of illegal drugs. It turns out that none of the car’s occupants were connected to the liquor store robbery. The arrest and seizure of the drugs were nonetheless valid. The radio call gave Officer Colombo reason to suspect that the car’s occupants had been involved in the robbery, which gave the officer the right to frisk the occupants. The officer could then seize the drugs discovered during the frisk and arrest their owner.

Getting Legal Help

As you can see, whether a car search is legal -- and whether evidence that is seized can be used against you -- depends heavily on the facts of your case. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be familiar with how cases with facts like yours have been decided in your state, and may be able to argue on your behalf that the circumstances in your case fall within the "invalid search" group.

This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.

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