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Criminal Law FAQs

If the Police Pull Me Over for a Traffic Offense, Can They Search My Car and Arrest Me?

When it comes to cars and their drivers, the police have a quite a bit of latitude in what they can do. It is perfectly legal for them to pull you over for a broken taillight — even if the real reason for making the stop is because the police believe something else is going on. As long as an officer can make a plausible argument to a judge that he believed that you were in violation of some traffic law, he or she can pull you over.

Once the police pull you over, they can search for and seize anything in plain view. This means if you have an open bottle of alcohol lying on the back seat, it is fair game for the police. If police have probable cause to believe you have been involved in criminal activity, including drunk driving, they can arrest you without a warrant. After you’ve been arrested, the police can conduct a full and legal search of your car and any belongings found in your car.

No matter how minor the alleged violation, the police can legally require you and your passengers to get out of the car. While they can’t search your car unless they have probable cause to believe there is criminal activity afoot, officers can do a brief pat down of you or any passenger if they have a only a reasonable suspicion that they might be in danger. Law enforcement can also have a trained dog sniff around your car for contraband without belief that something is wrong, and if the dog finds something, it can be used against you in court.

It is always a good idea to be polite and cooperative in these situations, even if you feel you’re being unfairly treated. If you have been stopped, you must produce a valid driver’s license and, possibly, proof of insurance; failure to do so carries its own penalty. You do not, however, have to answer any questions the police ask you, as you are always protected by your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

If you feel you have been treated unfairly during a traffic stop, an experienced attorney can help you determine whether the police have acted illegally and, if so, what your remedy might be.

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