Can officers search for drugs during a traffic stop?

On Behalf of | May 21, 2018 | Firm News |

As a South Dakota driver, you know that traffic stops are not all that uncommon. Whether you get “busted” for a broken tail light, speeding, failing to signal when you change lanes, or some other relatively minor traffic offense, things can get out of hand rather quickly if the officer who pulls you over then finds drugs in your car. But does (s)he have the right to search for drugs in the first place?

The answer is no. During a traffic stop, officers have the right and authority to do only the following:

  • Ask to see your driver’s license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration, all of which you must provide
  • Investigate the alleged traffic violation
  • Check to see if there are any outstanding warrants for your arrest and arrest you if any exist
  • Write the appropriate traffic ticket(s)

Drug searches

Officers do not have the automatic right to search your car for drugs. The reason is because a drug search has nothing to do with the purpose of a traffic stop, which is to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.” In the 2015 case of Rodriguez v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that officers can do only those things incident to a traffic stop, nothing further, when they pull you over for an alleged traffic violation. They cannot turn the traffic stop into a criminal investigation.

Consequently, they cannot search your car for drugs without your permission, and you do not have to give them that permission. While you should never “mouth off” to a law enforcement officer, you nevertheless have the right to respectfully decline his or her request to search your car. The only exception is if the officer sees drugs in plain view when (s)he looks in your car windows.

Fourth Amendment rights

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you have the right to remain free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Virtually all warrantless searches, whether of your home, your car or your person, violate your constitutional rights. The Rodriguez decision specifically held that any attempt by a law enforcement officer to “detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing” by means of a warrantless search of your car is illegal. Nor can officers extend the time of your traffic stop beyond the time they need to complete their traffic investigation and write the ticket(s). In other words, they cannot detain you while they apply for a search warrant or wait for drug-sniffing dogs.

Should you wind up with drug charges as well as a traffic ticket the next time officers pull you over, your best strategy is to consult a criminal defense attorney. (S)he can challenge the officers’ conduct at your trial and possibly get the evidence they collected excluded.