There's little doubt that much of the contact between police and people
who are arrested result from traffic stops. Many times people stopped
for routine traffic offenses are subsequently arrested for drug offenses,
transportation of narcotics, driving under the influence or a similar crime.
There are several things drivers should understand to help eliminate contact
with law-enforcement and put themselves in a position not to be arrested.
Basis for the Traffic Stop
In every state in the United States, any traffic infraction, no matter
how minor, gives police the right to stop a vehicle and investigate that
traffic infraction. Law-enforcement doesn't even need to be correct
about whether the traffic infraction happened. Rather they must just reasonably
suspect a traffic infraction occurred to justify a stop. The law is settled
that the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police
have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.
As an example, let's assume a motorist is just traveling on the interstate
- following the normal flow of traffic - and an officer observes the driver
following another vehicle too closely and initiates a traffic stop. Even
if the motorist was in fact not following another vehicle too closely,
but the officer reasonably believed that violation occurred, the legality
of the stop will likely be upheld in court.
Simply put, it doesn't matter if the officer is wrong about the facts
that support the stop so long as his belief is reasonable.
Initial Contact with the Driver
After initiating a traffic stop, an officer can walk up to the driver side
window or the passenger side window. Many times a driver will roll the
window all the way down to make it easier for the officer to see and smell
inside the vehicle. There is no legal obligation for a driver to roll
a window all the way down. A driver must simply roll the window down far
enough to be able to produce his or her license, registration, and proof
of insurance. Frequently, an officer may ask that the window be rolled
down further. A driver is perfectly within his rights to refuse that request.
Although a person is required to follow the lawful order of a police officer,
nothing within the law requires that a driver roll a window all the way
down or open a vehicle door unless there is a legitimate legal basis for
the officer to make the request.
Questions of the Driver and Passengers
Once a vehicle is stopped, the officer has the right to question the driver
about the facts surrounding the traffic violation. Such an investigation
may include asking the driver for an operator's license and registration,
requesting that the driver sit in the patrol car, and asking the driver
about the purpose and destination of his or her travel. The officer may
also run a computer check to determine whether the vehicle involved in
the stop has been stolen and whether there are outstanding warrants for
any of its occupants.
The officer may engage in similar routine questioning of passengers in the vehicle to verify information provided by the driver.
As indicated, many times an officer will ask a driver to come back to the
squad car for further questioning. Such a request is lawful, and a driver
is required to go back to a squad car with an officer. Officers are trained
to ask questions to help determine whether or not someone is engaged in
illegal activity. As an example, officers routinely ask questions about
the purpose of a trip or the destination or the other people in the vehicle.
Drivers should make sure their answers are short and direct, and they
should not offer extra information. There is no requirement to answer
any of the officer’s questions that are not directly related to
the traffic stop itself. Although it may seem odd and uncomfortable, merely
saying nothing and staying silent when questioned about a trip is perfectly
within one's constitutional rights. An officer would have a hard time
in a court of law convincing any judge that he or she believed something
illegal was going on if the officer had no more information about a driver
then his or her name combined with the information on a drivers license.
An officer's purpose in stopping a driver for a traffic infraction
is to investigate the facts surrounding that traffic infraction. If the
officer develops reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity (eg,
transporting illegal drugs, driving under the influence of alcohol, etc.),
the officer has the right to ask questions about the other suspected criminal
activity. If the driver does not offer any information about the trip,
there is no reason or bases for the officer to suspect any other illegal activity.
Request to Search
Frequently, an officer will ask for permission to search a vehicle. Many
times a driver will mistakenly believe that things will go better if he
or she cooperates with law-enforcement. That is simply not true. You always
have the right to tell a cop "no" to a request to search your
vehicle. The reality is that if the officer believes he has the right
to search your vehicle, it's going to be searched regardless of whether
or not you give consent so there is nothing to be gained by giving an
officer consent to search your car.
If an officer asks for consent to search a vehicle for drugs, and a driver
gives consent, the officer has the right to search every container within
that vehicle. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is reasonable for
an officer to conclude that the general consent to search a car includes
consent to search closed containers within the car which might hold drugs.
This means the officer will search every container and bag and compartment
in the vehicle.
If you or someone else you know has been stopped for a traffic violation
and an arrest has occurred, contact an attorney at the Berry Law Firm.