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Traffic Stops

Navigation:  Home > Criminal Law > Traffic Stops


The primary law enforcement purposes for making a traffic stop of a moving vehicle on a public highway are: 1) to verify that a violation of the traffic laws has occurred or is occurring and, 2) to provide for the issuance of an appropriate ticket or citation charging such traffic violation or make an arrest of the driver based upon such violation. In furtherance of these purposes, the police officer is authorized to require the driver of the vehicle to produce a valid driver's license and documentation establishing the ownership of the vehicle and that required public liability insurance coverage are in effect on such vehicle.An officer legitimately may stop a vehicle for a suspected minor motor-vehicle infraction. Once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment. Furthermore, a police officer may search the passenger compartment of an automobile for weapons, even without probable cause, if the police officer possesses a reasonable belief that the suspect is dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons. The search, however, must be limited to those areas in which a weapon may be placed or hidden. 

When a valid traffic stop occurs, the officer may also run a computer check on the driver's license and registration or rental car papers. Further, questioning is allowed, even if it's unrelated to the purpose of the stop, so long as the questioning occurs while the officers are waiting for the results of the computer check, because such questioning does not prolong the time of the initial valid seizure. However, once the computer check is completed and there is no warrant for arrest of the driver or report that the car was stolen, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and any further detention becomes an unlawful seizure. After the purpose of a traffic stop is completed (for instance, after a ticket has been issued), it would be an unreasonable extension of the scope of an investigation for an officer to further detain a driver unless during the traffic stop something occurred which generated reasonable suspicion to justify a further detention.  

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