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Preventing a traffic stop from turning into a drug bust

As a Wisconsin college student, you likely will get your share of traffic tickets. But before that traffic stop turns into a drug bust, you need to know and assert your rights. For instance, it may surprise you to learn that law enforcement officers do not have the automatic right to search your car for drugs or anything else when they pull you over for an alleged traffic violation.

Only two exceptions exist for this prohibition. First, officers can search your car if you or your passengers leave drugs or any other suspicious or illegal items in plain view when officers look in your car windows. Second, they can search if you give them permission to do so. Even when you know you have nothing illegal in your car, you should never give officers permission to search it if and when they ask to do so. Of course, you should never “mouth off” to a law enforcement officer; simply decline his or her request to search.

Traffic stop restrictions

By law, officers can do only the following four things when they pull you over for an alleged traffic violation:

  1. Request you to produce your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance, which you must give them
  2. Investigate the alleged traffic violation(s) for which they stopped you
  3. Check with their dispatcher for any outstanding warrants against you and arrest you if there are
  4. Write the ticket(s) for whatever traffic offense(s) they allege you committed

Your constitutional rights

Per the U.S. Supreme Court case of Rodriguez v. United States in 2015, after officers do the above four things, they can do nothing further because the traffic stop is over. They cannot attempt to turn it into a drug bust by continuing to hold you while they wait for a warrant to search your car or wait for other officers to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the scene.

The Rodriguez holding is one of many that flow from your Fourth Amendment right to remain free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court has held for years that warrantless searches are unreasonable except in the two situations noted above. In addition, as the Justices said in Rodriguez, a traffic stop’s only purpose consists of “ensur[ing] that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.”

Consequently, since attempting to investigate a possible drug crime is totally separate from and unrelated to investigating an alleged traffic violation, officers cannot do it. Technically, they cannot even ask you questions about drugs or anything else unrelated to your supposed traffic violation, although many officers routinely do so. If faced with this situation, again do not “mouth off” to the officers. Simply decline to answer their questions.

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