What are my Rights During a Traffic Stop?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on May 11, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Imagine you're driving to a party, dancing along to the music on the radio. You swerve a bit on the road. Suddenly, you see the tell-tale flashing red lights behind you. It's the police. What should you do in a traffic stop? And more importantly, what are your rights?

While police officers are given a high level of authority, they must abide by certain rules. With this in mind, here are some of the most frequently asked questions about traffic stops:

What protects my rights during a traffic stop? The simple answer is the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. Officers are not generally allowed to search through your personal belongings, your house, or your car without reason.

During a traffic stop, can the police search my vehicle? Maybe. Remember, the Fourth Amendment protects you against unreasonable search and seizure. Police officers will often ask you first if they can search your vehicle. If you consent, they can go head and conduct the search. However, even if you do not explicitly consent to the search, a police officer may go ahead and search your vehicle if they have reasonable suspicion that there is something dangerous or illegal that you are concealing. Depending on the state, the officer can also search through locked compartments of your car.

Do the police need to get a warrant? If they have reasonable suspicion, as explained above, they do not need to get a warrant. An officer could, however, wait for a search warrant. If they do, then they will be able to conduct a more thorough search of your car.

What if I have something in the backseat? If you have something visible in your backseat when the officer stops you, such as a loaded gun, it is considered "plain view seizure." If the officer is legitimately standing next to your car and sees the illegal weapon, they can go ahead and seize it. Seeing something illegal or dangerous in plain view can also give the officer the reasonable suspicion necessary to perform a more thorough search of your car.

The statutory guidelines for what is acceptable and legal during a traffic stop are different depending on what state you are in. If you feel that your rights have been violated, it might be advisable that you consult a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer to determine if there are any legal remedies for you.

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