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How a Terry stop affects drug charges

Florida drivers who are pulled over by a law enforcement officer for a traffic violation, but also are charged with drug possession because the officer found drugs in the car when searching it, should be aware that searching their car may not be allowed during a traffic stop. As explained by the Legal Information Institute, a stop and frisk by a law enforcement officer is often called a Terry stop based on the landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio.

In that case, the Court held that a law enforcement officer may briefly stop and detain a driver only for as long as it takes to conduct an inquiry into the traffic violation for which the officer pulled the car over. (S)he does not need to believe that anyone in the vehicle is involved in a criminal activity, as (s)he would in a nonvehicular Terry stop and frisk.

The Supreme Court subsequently has handed down several additional decisions expanding on Terry. As reported in The Washington Post, one such case, Rodriguez v. United States, held that law enforcement officers do not have the right to extend a traffic stop for even the smallest amount of time beyond that required to complete the traffic violation investigation. In other words, it is a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights if the officer extends the investigation to anything not having to do with the traffic stop itself. The officer cannot investigate a nonrelated crime such as drug possession.

What Rodriguez means

The Rodriguez decision clearly makes it illegal for a law enforcement officer to extend the time of a traffic stop to allow drug-sniffing dogs to arrive. Nor can the officer ask to search the car. Only if drugs are visible in the car when the officer looks in the windows can (s)he conduct a nonconsensual search under the “plain view” exception.

Terry stops involving traffic violations must begin and end with the traffic violation itself. The only things a law enforcement officer can do is check the registration, insurance and driver’s license, check for outstanding warrants and write the ticket(s). Anything further, including asking questions about drugs or asking to search the vehicle, is prohibited.


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