Friday, November 29, 2013

Guest Post: Illegal Traffic Stop -- What Can a Police Officer Do When He Pulls You Over?

It is the Cops' jobs to protect the public; one way to do that is through legitimate traffic stops.  But what about when a police officer abuses his power?  How far can a cop go during the traffic stop?  And, what can you do to stop him?

Once the purpose of a traffic stop has been satisfied, the continued detention of a vehicle and its occupants constitutes a second stop, and must be independently justified by reasonable suspicion.

This means that a police officer must have a purpose for initially pulling you over (to give you a warning or ticket for speeding, improper lane change, following too close, etc.).  AND once that purpose is satisfied, he cannot ask you anything else! Warning: if you do something before the officer gives you a ticket/warning that would give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, he can inquire into his suspicions. 

SO, a police officer pulls you over, asks you the usual "do you know why I pulled you over?" then he gives you a warning for speeding.  STOP!  He cannot then ask you "do you mind if I look in your trunk?" or even "Why are you traveling through here?"  He cannot ask you ANY more questions.  His purpose for the stop is satisfied.  Any more questions would constitute an illegal stop. 

Next time a police officer asks you anything after giving you a warning or a ticket, ask him "You already gave me a ticket, so I am free to go, right?"  Asserting your rights is never justification for a suspicion. 

Police cannot extend a stop longer than what is necessary to fulfill its initial purpose without additional reasonable suspicion.  As an example: in a famous Maryland case (Whitehead v. State), the officer detained Whitehead and determined that Whitehead’s license was in order and the vehicle was not stolen.  Instead of issuing a ticket, the officer continued the detention of Whitehead until a K-9 unit arrived and performed a search.  THIS WAS ILLEGAL! 

The police have a duty to expeditiously confirm or dispel their suspicions (the initial reason they pulled you over).  They cannot conveniently forget the purpose of the stop, then pick it up later when they feel like it.  Warning: again, if you do something that would give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the officer can inquire into his suspicions. 

SO, a police officer pulls you over, asks you why he did so, then asks you if he can look in your trunk before he writes you a warning.  STOP!  He cannot investigate anything except the initial purpose of his stop.  (See Warning) Even if he starts to ask you other questions like "where are you coming from?"  "Where are you going?"  "Do you have any drugs on you?"  All of these questions forget the purpose of his initial stop and must be justified by a separate reasonable suspicion. 

First, ask him why he pulled you over to get the officer back on track.  He should realize he doesn't have a right to ask you those questions.  If he continues, say "Officer I am not a criminal, I am sorry for speeding, was there another reason why you pulled me over?"  If he continues, say "Officer, with all due respect, the law protects me from answering questions that have nothing to do with why you pulled me over."

Kigan Martineau, '14
American University - Washington College of Law
Guest Submission

For more posts by Kigan, check out his great blog!


  1. Articles like these are always helpful because who isn't anxious when a cop pulls you over? Just don't sound like a law student or lawyer. Since the article cites no case law and this is a criminal law practitioner's guide, I'd suggest that any law student or lawyer interested in the subject read Terry v Ohio 392 U.S. 1 (1968) and Arizona v Johnson.555 U.S. 323 (2009).

  2. Well, it is the right of police to carry out his duty and pull you over. You must cooperate with him instead of showing rude attitude or running away.

    Kristo Jackal
    Personal Injury Attorney Tempa

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