If a Minnesota law enforcement officer pulls you over for an alleged traffic violation, make sure that what starts out as a “busted tail light” does not wind up with drug charges being brought against you. Officers often attempt to search your vehicle during a traffic stop, but you need not allow this, nor should you.

Terry stops get their name from the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio. This was the case that established an officer’s right to search your vehicle during a traffic stop only if (s)he observes drugs or anything else illegal sitting in plain view when (s)he looks in your vehicle’s windows.

The Rodriguez decision

As the Washington Post reported, SCOTUS further specifically prohibited officers from searching your vehicle in the 2015 case of Rodriguez v. United States. In that case, the Court listed as follows the only four things an officer can do during a traffic stop:

  1. Ask for and receive your driver’s license, proof of insurance and registration; you must provide these
  2. Investigate the alleged traffic violation for which (s)he pulled you over
  3. Check with his or her dispatcher to see if you have any outstanding warrants
  4. Write the appropriate traffic ticket(s)

Once (s)he has done these four things, the traffic stop ends and (s)he cannot do anything further. Nor can (s)he prolong the traffic stop so as to, for instance, wait for drug-sniffing dogs to arrive.

Vehicle searches

Technically, the officer cannot even question you about the possible presence of drugs or any other illegal substance in your vehicle during a vehicular Terry stop. Why? Because per SCOTUS, a traffic stop has only one purpose: to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.”

Since that purpose does not include the investigation of possible criminal activity other than the traffic infraction itself, searching for drugs is strictly off limits with the exception of the plain view rule. Therefore, if an officer ever asks to search your car, respectfully decline to give your permission. You are perfectly within your legal rights to do so.

This is general educational information and not intended to provide legal advice.