Traffic stops can involve confusing issues of legality over both reason for the stop itself and whether that stop can extend to a search of the vehicle. Armed with knowledge of the laws governing traffic stops, you will be better equipped to respond appropriately and recognize when police are attempting to execute a legal or illegal stop or search. While the information presented here should help you understand the general guidelines applied to traffic stops, it cannot be taken as a professional legal advice for your specific case.
Question 1: When can police legally stop a driver?
A stop of a motor vehicle in Minnesota is considered, according to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a seizure since you are prevented from moving your vehicle, even if only temporarily. Police can stop a driver in a motor vehicle when they have a reasonable suspicion that a violation has occurred. The term “reasonable suspicion” is distinct from “probable cause” and requires less substantial evidence. The law requires police to base their reasonable suspicion on objective evidence and not execute random stops without reason, stops based on hunches or due to simple idle desire.
According to “The Minnesota Judges Handbook on Traffic Stops,” the following are examples of reasonable suspicion:
Objective Observation: The police observed you committing a traffic violation or other crime. Erratic driving, running a stop sign or even a parking violation can provide reasonable suspicion.
Criminal Past: Your criminal past is known to the police and this can combine with another factor to create reasonable suspicion.
Reasonable Police Error: If you are innocent of the crime you were stopped for, this does not invalidate an investigative stop if the police had a reasonable suspicion that a violation had occurred. Stopping the wrong vehicle or the wrong driver are examples of this.
Informants: If an identified informant provides specific information to the police, for example that you are driving drunk, the police have reasonable suspicion to stop you and investigate.
It is important to note that simply driving in a high crime area does not provide a reasonable suspicion unless there are other specific factors that the investigating officer can articulate. Police also cannot ask you to present identification unless they have specific reason to suspect a violation has occurred.
Question 2: Can police search at a traffic stop without permission?
Yes, but they need to have probable cause. Before discussing here the term “probable cause,” let’s make one point clear: You should never grant permission to search your vehicle at a traffic stop if the police ask. If they ask, this means that they believe they don’t have probable cause and therefore without your permission, the search is illegal.
With that said, police have probable cause for a search when:
· Evidence of a crime can be seen in plain sight
· The police have probable cause to believe that your vehicle contains evidence of a crime
· You have been arrested
· For officer safety
· Your car has been impounded
Know the law and know your rights, but remember to be respectful at the same time as this can diffuse many volatile situations.