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Can officers search your car during a traffic stop?

Getting pulled over for an alleged traffic violation is not all that uncommon in Texas, especially if you are a relatively young driver. Usually, the officer says (s)he caught you speeding, failing to stop at a stop light or sign, making an illegal turn or committing some other reasonably minor infraction. Things can quickly escalate, however, if that traffic stop turns into a search for drugs or other illegal substances. But does (s)he have the legal right to search?

No, (s)he does not. When conducting a traffic stop, a law enforcement officer may do only the following things:

  • Ask you for your driver’s license, insurance and registration, all of which the law requires you to produce
  • Investigate the traffic infraction for which (s)he stopped you
  • Check for outstanding warrants against you and arrest you if any such warrants exist
  • Write the traffic ticket(s)

Drug searches

Unless you and/or your passengers are unwise enough to have illegal substances in plain view inside your car where an officer can see them when looking in your windows, (s)he cannot search your car for drugs or anything else unless you give your permission, which you definitely should not do. Keeping in mind that it is never in your best interests to argue with or “mouth off” to a law enforcement officer, neither is it in your best interests to consent to a vehicle search. Just politely and respectfully decline the officer’s request.

The reason officers do not have an automatic right to search your car during a traffic stop is because that search has nothing to do with a traffic stop’s purpose, i.e., to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.” Thus spoke the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2015 case of Rodriguez v. United States. The Court went on to say that officers cannot turn a traffic stop into an unrelated criminal investigation.

Your Fourth Amendment rights

Per the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an officer cannot legally violate your right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. A warrantless search of your car is just such an unreasonable search. In the Rodriguez decision, the Court held that an officer violates your constitutional rights if (s)he attempts to “detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing” via a warrantless search during a traffic stop. Nor can (s)he detain you while waiting for a warrant or drug-sniffing dogs. The traffic stop must end as soon as (s)he completes the traffic investigation and writes the ticket(s).

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