Your rights during a traffic stop

A police officer following you for several miles can be intimidating. Were you going too fast? Is your tail light out? Did you fail to come to a complete stop at the last intersection? The officer may simply be patrolling his or her regular route or waiting for a safe place to pull you over.

When the red lights flash, do you know what to do to protect your civil rights? You may know enough to pull off the road and place your hands on the wheel. You certainly know to speak politely and remain calm. However, what should you do if the officer asks you to get out of the vehicle? Should you allow police to search your car?

Searching without a warrant

If a police officer asks you to step out of your vehicle, it is probably for a good reason. Usually, remaining in your car is safer for you, especially if the traffic stop occurs on a busy highway. When an officer makes a request for you to exit your vehicle, it may be as a safety precaution, for either your own good or the good of the officer. It is best to comply, but you still do not need to allow a search of the vehicle without a warrant.

The U.S. Constitution protects you from illegal search. An illegal search happens when police have no good reason, or probable cause, to search you or your vehicle. In order to search your vehicle during a routine traffic stop, police must have one of the following reasons:

  • You have given permission.
  • Police have placed you under arrest.
  • The officer believes something in your car may place you or others in danger.
  • Investigators believe waiting for a warrant could cause the destruction of evidence.
  • Something suspicious or incriminating is in plain view (or obvious to the officer's other senses).

For example, an officer pulling you over for speeding or a broken tail light may not have probable cause to search your vehicle unless the officer also smells marijuana in your car or sees a bloody weapon on the seat.

Searching with a warrant

If Minnesota police have a warrant to search your car, you must allow the search. Usually, they will be looking for something specific, like a weapon or drugs, and not just doing a search hoping they find some contraband. On the other hand, if the warrant allows investigators to search for drugs and they happen across a gun, they will likely charge you for a weapons offense.

When police search your car without your permission or a warrant, your lawyer can challenge anything they find. Incriminating evidence found during an illegal search may be inadmissible, and this could mean certain charges against you may no longer have merit.

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