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So You've Been Handed the Traffic Ticket. Can the Officer Then Search Your Car?

Nix Poet Unlawful Police Search.jpgFor a few moments imagine yourself in the following situation. It relates to traffic stops and whether or not a police officer is allowed to search your vehicle.

You're driving along, and you see a pothole in the road. You let your vehicle briefly veer onto the shoulder of the road to avoid the pothole. A police officer sees you do this and pulls you over because it's a traffic violation to drive on the shoulder of the road.

When the officer approaches your car, you hand over your license, registration and proof of insurance, as you're supposed to do. Then the officer asks you to step out of your vehicle and walk back to the police car. You ask if you're required to walk to the police car; the officer says no; so you decide to wait in your own vehicle.

After checking your records, the officer comes back to your car, returns your documents and asks you a few questions. You answer the questions, and the officer writes you a ticket and explains it to you.

You might think that the traffic stop is finished, but the officer keeps you on the scene.

The officer, who happens to be a K-9 officer with a drug-sniffing dog in his patrol car, asks if it's okay to let the dog walk around your vehicle. You say no, and the officer requests that you turn off your car, step out and wait by the patrol car. You're told that another officer is on the way.

In this situation, if a drug-sniffing dog indicates that you have an illegal substance in your vehicle, does the police officer have the legal authority to search your car and seize any drugs that may be in there? The United States Supreme Court has already said no.

This scenario is basically the one considered by the Supreme Court in a case called Rodriguez v. United States. The case was decided in April.

Police seized drugs from a driver's vehicle after a dog indicated the presence of drugs. However, the Supreme Court found that the seizure was unlawful because the traffic stop was unreasonably prolonged in order to let the dog sniff.

In other words, the "business" of the traffic stop was complete, and the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to keep the driver on the scene for a non-traffic-related search.

Unlawful searches are more common than most people realize. If you are facing a criminal charge after a search of your person or property, then speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible about your case. Early intervention is crucial in these situations.

With offices in Sherman and McKinney, Texas, the criminal defense lawyers of Nix | Poet use proven strategies to challenge evidence seized in police searches. To learn more about defending against drug charges, please see our overview on holding law enforcement accountable.

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