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Q: What are my rights during a traffic stop?

Seeing blue lights in the rear view mirror can be nerve-wracking to anyone, whether or not they are doing something wrong.  Part of the explanation for why an innocent person’s blood pressure might go up at the sight of blue lights is that most drivers think of their cars as an extension of their homes and expect a certain level of privacy. In fact, one’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unlawful search and seizure are still in effect during a traffic stop, but there are many ways that police can expand a routine stop into a search.

Generally, police need to have “probable cause” to pull a driver over. This means that the officer has a reasonable, articulable belief that the driver has committed a crime. For instance, the officer used a tool to observe a car going over 60 mph in a 50 mph zone, so he or she reasonably believes the driver was breaking the speed limit.

Once an officer has pulled over a driver, the officer is allowed to use his or her physical senses (think sight, hearing, and smell primarily) to gather evidence, even if it is unrelated to the reason for the stop. This additional evidence could make it lawful for the officer to expand the scope of the stop by asking the driver to exit the car and/or searching parts of the interior.

Take these steps to ensure that your Fourth Amendment rights are not violated during a traffic stop:

  1. Pull over to a safe place and do not move around your car until the officer has come to your car to interact. Bending down or appearing to rummage around your car can look suspicious, even if you are searching for your license and insurance.
  2. Politely ask the police officer why you are being pulled over. In order to have probable cause, he or she should be able to articulate the reason for the stop.
  3. Do not answer questions that are unrelated to the reason for the stop or volunteer information beyond what the officer asks.
  4. Do not consent to getting out of the car or allowing the officer to search your car unless the officer can articulate what he or she has observed to build suspicion. Your consent means a suspicionless search is valid.

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