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Can officers search your car during a traffic stop?

Getting pulled over by Oklahoma law enforcement officers for an alleged traffic offense is bad enough. You should know your rights and not let a traffic stop escalate into drug charges, too. How could this happen, you ask? What if the officer searches your car and finds drugs?

Which brings up another question: is an officer within his or her legal rights to search your car for drugs during a traffic stop? No – with one exception. If (s)he can see drugs or other suspicious items in plain view when (s)he looks in your windows, then (s)he can search. Otherwise, (s)he must ask you for your permission, and you do not have to give him or her that permission. Of course you should never “mouth off” to a law enforcement officer, but you also do not have to submit to a vehicle search. Simply decline the officer’s request.

What officers legally can do during a traffic stop

By law, when an officer pulls you over for an alleged traffic violation, the only things (s)he can do are the following:

  • Ask you to produce your registration, driver’s license and proof of insurance, which you must produce
  • Investigate the traffic violation (s)he alleges you committed
  • Check with his or her dispatcher to find out if any court issued an arrest warrant for you and if so, arrest you on that warrant
  • Write the traffic ticket(s)

Per the 2015 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Rodriguez v. United States, the officer cannot turn a traffic stop into an investigation of a completely different supposed crime. (S)he cannot even prolong your traffic stop to call for drug-sniffing dogs or wait for a warrant granting him or her permission to search your car. Once (s)he concludes the traffic investigation and writes you a ticket, (s)he must let you go.

Your Fourth Amendment rights

Long before the Supreme Court decided Rodriguez v. United States, our country’s Founding Fathers gave you the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures via the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A warrantless search is one of those deemed unreasonable. The Fourth Amendment also prohibits a warrantless seizure of your body, i.e., your arrest.

To obtain any type of warrant, an officer must have probable cause to believe that you are committing, or about to commit, a crime. During a traffic stop, the officer has no reason, let alone probable cause, to believe that you did anything other than allegedly commit a traffic offense such as speeding. Since traffic infractions are not crimes, but only quasi-criminal at best, searching your vehicle for drugs or any other illegal substances is itself illegal because it has nothing to do with the purpose of a traffic stop, which is to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.”

If you are a relatively young driver, you stand the highest chance not only of getting pulled over for a traffic violation, but also of a request by the officer to search your vehicle. Again, do not give him or her your permission to do so. Even if you know you have no drugs, alcohol, etc. in your car, it is against your best interests to allow any officer to search your vehicle without a warrant. You are under no obligation whatsoever to accede to the officer’s request. Just say no.

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