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Terry stops and drug charges

Getting pulled over by a law enforcement officer for a Virginia traffic violation is not a particularly rare occurrence. However, sometimes what started as a “busted tail light” can wind up with the driver being arrested on drug charges. But are such arrests legal?

The Legal Information Institute explains that in a vehicular Terry stop, the law enforcement officer does not have an automatic right to search the vehicle for drugs unless such drugs are clearly visible inside the vehicle when he or she peers in the windows. They are called Terry stops based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio.

In a nonvehicular Terry stop, law enforcement officers with a reasonable suspicion that an individual is armed and engaged, or about to be engaged, in criminal conduct have the right to briefly detain the person and do a pat-down search of his or her outer clothing. This search and seizure falls under the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. In a vehicular Terry stop, however, the officer is simply pulling the vehicle over to investigate a traffic violation. He or she has no reason to suspect that any occupant of the vehicle is armed or dangerous. Consequently, the officer can only detain the vehicle for as long as it takes him or her to complete the traffic violation investigation.

The Rodriguez case

In 2015, the Supreme Court handed down another case dealing with Terry stops. As reported in the Washington Post, the case of Rodriguez v. United States established that an officer cannot extend a traffic stop for even a short period beyond the time it takes him or her to complete the traffic investigation. In other words, the officer can only do the following:

  • Obtain the driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance
  • Check for outstanding warrants against the driver
  • Write the traffic ticket(s)

Anything further is a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights. The officer cannot search the vehicle without the driver’s permission unless drugs are in plain view. The driver is not required to give that permission. In fact, he or she should not do so.

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