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When law enforcement cannot search a car for drugs

Tennessee drivers who are pulled over for a traffic violation should be aware of their rights regarding when a law enforcement officer can search their vehicle for drugs or anything else. The Legal Information Institute explains that these traffic stops are often called Terry stops based on the landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in .

The decision in that case gives law enforcement officers the right to stop, briefly detain, and frisk anyone they have reasonable suspicion to believe is armed or engaged in a criminal activity or about to be so engaged. A Terry stop and frisk is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a vehicular Terry stop, however, the law enforcement officer has no reason to believe that anyone in the vehicle is armed or engaged in criminal activity. He or she is only investigating an alleged traffic violation.

The Rodriguez case

The Washington Post reported on the elaboration of in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case of Rodriguez v. United States. In that case, the Court held that the Fourth Amendment precludes a law enforcement officer from detaining a vehicle and its driver any longer than it takes him or her to investigate the traffic violation.

The Court based its decision on the difference between the purpose of a true Terry stop; i.e., the investigation of a suspected crime, and the purpose of a traffic stop; i.e., the investigation of a traffic infraction. In the latter situation, the traffic stop can last only as long as it takes the officer to check the driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance, check for outstanding warrants, and write the ticket(s).

Anything else, such as searching the vehicle for drugs, is prohibited since it is outside the scope of the traffic violation. Should the officer ask questions about drugs, the driver should respectfully decline to answer them. Likewise, the driver should never give his or her consent to a vehicle search.

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