For the average law-abiding citizen, few encounters with law enforcement generate more anxiety than the traffic stop.
A stop of an automobile for a traffic infraction or for other violations of the law is often referred to as an investigatory stop or temporary detention. Law enforcement is not allowed to stop you simply to run a check or to see if you have your registration. There is no such thing as a “routine traffic stop.” Law enforcement can only stop your vehicle if there is probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred, or if there is reasonable suspicion to believe that the “motorist is engaging in illegal activity.” Probable cause is necessary for an arrest; reasonable suspicion is all that is needed for an investigatory stop or temporary detention.
During a traffic stop an officer can order not only the driver, but also the passengers, to exit the vehicle and can question the passengers and ask them to identify themselves. Under certain circumstances an officer can also conduct a frisk for weapons if he has a reasonable belief that the driver or a passenger is armed and dangerous. This is called a pat-down search where the officer feels your clothing to see if he can feel a weapon or contraband. If he reasonably believes what he is feeling is a weapon or other unlawful object, he can reach into your clothing and grab it. The office cannot normally reach into your pockets or under your clothes during a pat-down search. The “investigatory stop" must be based on reasonable suspicion; if not, the frisk would also be unlawful.
A traffic stop must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop. During a traffic stop, an officer cannot keep you longer than it takes to perform a registration check, confirm your license and issue a ticket. If the stop is prolonged, then a violation of your constitutional rights has occurred.
The police cannot normally search your vehicle without your consent during a traffic stop. They must have probable cause to believe that there are illegal substances in your car or that there is other evidence of a crime before they can conduct a search. They do not need a warrant if they have probable cause unless the vehicle is in their custody or under their complete control. The police can look through the window and observe anything that is in plain sight. If drugs or firearms are visible through the window, this will provide probable cause to search the vehicle. If you are being arrested, the police can search the interior of your vehicle but not the trunk or closed containers. If your vehicle is seized as evidence or is towed to get it off the road, it can be thoroughly searched and its contents inventoried.
The police can also handcuff the driver or the passenger temporarily if the officer has a reasonable concern for his safety. If the stop is prolonged or if you are taken from the scene or if the handcuffing was unnecessary, the car stop can change into an arrest which requires probable cause.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of an unlawful car stop, detention or car search, speak with an experienced civil rights attorney immediately to determine what your next step should be.
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com