Can law enforcement search your vehicle during a traffic stop?

Getting pulled over for speeding or other traffic violations in Pennsylvania is not all that uncommon. However, if a law enforcement officer pulls you over for a traffic violation and asks if he or she can search your vehicle, you do not have to consent to the search. In fact, you should not do so.

Law enforcement officers have the authority to stop you if you were speeding, weaving, etc. or if your vehicle has a broken headlight or taillight. As reported in the Washington Post, however, they do not have the right to search your vehicle as part of that traffic stop.

When an officer pulls you over, he is conducting a vehicular Terry stop, so named for the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio. Both vehicular and nonvehicular Terry stops fall under the Fourth Amendment guarantee that you have the right to be free of illegal searches and seizures. If an officer searches your vehicle during a traffic stop without your permission, he or she has violated your civil rights. The only exception is if weapons, drugs or alcohol are plainly visible inside your vehicle.

Permissible traffic stop procedures

Rodriguez v. United States, a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case, held that an officer cannot detain you for any longer than it takes him or her to complete the traffic investigation. In other words, the only things he or she can do are the following:

  • Ask for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance
  • Check to see if there are any outstanding warrants for your arrest
  • Write the ticket(s) for the traffic violation(s) you committed

The officer cannot extend the duration of your traffic stop even briefly for anything unrelated to the original purpose of the stop. For instance, he or she cannot have a “hunch” that there are drugs concealed somewhere in your vehicle and search it without your consent. Nor can he or she extend the length of your traffic stop to wait for drug-sniffing dogs to arrive and verify that hunch. While this information should not be taken as legal advice, it can help you understand the process and what to expect.

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