When you are pulled over by police on public roads, often times police become interested in what contraband (illegal stuff) may be found in the car. Often times special interdiction units will pull cars over for whatever reason they can find, only because they are interested in contraband, particularly drugs. Generally, a roadside stop is not going to involve a warrant, thus you are only subject to a search in most cases if you consent!
I find that many clients are highly intimidated by roadside stops, particularly where police begin to ask questions about what may be in the car that is illegal. Police in these situations have absolutely no authority, absent probable cause, to search the car with out you telling them that they can. They can talk, threaten, do whatever they like, but without your consent, they can't search the vehicle in a routine traffic stop. I recommend to all my clients to express the fact, upon being asked to allow a search, that you do not consent to warrantless searches. And you can even add that you appreciate the fine job the officer is doing by asking! Keep in mind you'll want to be as polite and respectful as possible when you assert your 4th amendment freedoms in this way to police.
In a routine traffic stop, especially if highway interdiction is involved, drug sniffing dogs (K-9s) may be involved in checking your car. As part of the routine stop, courts have held that these brief sniff checks of the outside of your vehicle are permissible. However, routine traffic stops must not be unreasonable in length. If the time needed to procure a K-9 unit to run the sniff check takes longer than a reasonable traffic stop would otherwise, then you may have a 4th amendment violation of your rights. This could happen if the officer who stopped you is making you wait for a K-9 unit to arrive on the scene. If in fact the k-9 unit alerts to contraband, the entire car is now open to search. There are entire bodies of law covering K-9 searches, and I intend to blog about that at a later time.
Probable cause can give police the authority to search your vehicle on the road. You have a lowered expectation of privacy in a vehicle, so no actual warrant need issue for a search of your car, as long as probable cause is present. Some common scenarios that lead to probable cause are, smell of marijuana (this is a huge/super common one) or plain view of drugs/paraphernalia. Being nervous or making inconsistent statements is not probable cause, but is does build reasonable suspicion to investigate, thus you are best off not answering questions or engaging in unnecessary conversations.
I generally recommend cooperating at traffic stops as follows:
- Politely hand over appropriate licensing and registration information as will be requested
- If asked to exit the car, do so politely
- Do not consent to any frisks of your person if you are asked to exit the car
- Do not at any point consent to a search of your car
- Do not engage in conversation or Q & A with the police
- If your are encouraged to talk about your car's contents, where you've been, where you're going, etc., politely decline to engage in police interviews
- Always remember to politely ask if you're being detained beyond the scope of the traffic stop, and if not, you'd like to be on your way.
- Combine the last bullet point with "I don't consent to searches or unnecessary questioning" and that should be the bulk of all you say.
Some folks may consider this non cooperative, and that may seem a little against how you might have been raised. We're taught to respect and cooperate with law enforcement, and these actions seem to go directly against that idea. However, this is nothing more than exercising your right to privacy and freedom under the 4th Amendment. If you get pulled over, and you're charged with contraband or any other charges in the Asheville/Western NC area, call an asheville drug lawyer today!