Searches and Seizures after minor Traffic Infractions

April 03, 2014

Traffic Stop Searches

The question of permissible scope of searches and seizures by law enforcement in the context of minor traffic infractions is a major issue in criminal law today.

The Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable intrusions on a person’s liberty arises when an officer seizes a person.  Temporary detention of individuals during a stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a ‘seizure’ of ‘persons.’  As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable when the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.

Traffic stops often are pretext for a drug investigation.  Being a single person in an automobile from Colorado or California enhances the likelihood of being stopped for a minor violation of the law.  These stops often start off with the officer indicating that only a warning will be issued.  The officer then requests that the driver come back to the law-enforcement vehicle, at which time the officer asks a plethora of questions about the driver’s travels.  The routine traffic stop is then transformed into a drug interdiction investigation.

A valid traffic stop may become “unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonable required to complete [its] mission.” This means the seizure must be limited both in scope and duration.  So long as inquiries unrelated to the traffic stop “do not measurably extend the duration of the stop” they do not run afoul of the constitution.

Often, about the time the officer is going to issue the warning, the officer will request to search the vehicle.  The driver should always tell the officer, politely, that they do not consent to a search and then inquire whether they are free to leave.