Both the U.S. Constitution and the New York Constitution prohibit unlawful searches and seizures — meaning that law-enforcement officers are not allowed to just detain or search people without cause.
Even with routine traffic stops, police officers must have a legitimate reason for stopping a vehicle and they are only allowed to take specific actions during the course of the stop. When police officers act outside of these boundaries, they infringe upon the constitutional rights of those they have stopped.
What Are These Limitations?
First, as noted, police officers must have a legal reason for the stop. Unquestionably, watching someone violate a law constitutes a valid reason for the stop. If a police officer sees you run a red light, notices that you are driving without a seatbelt or catches you talking on the phone without a hands-free device, the officer has sufficient grounds to stop you.
The fact that the officer can stop you does not give the officer free reign to ask about any subject, though. In New York state, when an officer stops someone for a particular traffic violation, the officer’s subsequent interaction with the driver must relate to that traffic violation; the stop does not grant the officer a blanket license for unlimited questioning.
For example, if you are stopped for speeding, the officer can ask you questions about your speed. The officer can also check to ensure your license is valid, and that you have proper registration and proof of insurance. However, the officer generally cannot ask you about other potentially illegal activities, such as whether you have been drinking. The officer cannot search your car simply based on the fact that you were speeding.
One important exception to note, though, is that a police officer may go beyond the bounds of the initial reason for the stop if he or she has separate grounds for further inquiry — meaning that the officer has a reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity.
For example, if a police officer can smell alcohol on a driver’s breath, the officer can ask questions about drinking, regardless of the original reason for the stop. Similarly, if a police officer notices illegal contraband inside the vehicle, the officer is allowed to search the vehicle. The officer may ask questions outside of the scope of the initial stop, as long as he or she has an independent reason for continuing the inquiry.
In addition to the restrictions on the nature of questioning, routine traffic stops must be limited in duration. The officer is allowed to investigate the relevant violation, and may detain you for as long as necessary to investigate that particular issue and any other reasonable suspicions that have arisen in the course of the stop. The officer is not allowed to hold you though, just waiting or hoping to obtain further grounds to justify a search or a reason to ask additional questions.
What Does This Mean as a Practical Matter?
Most of the time, those detained by the police follow the instructions the police provide. If a police officer tells you to wait, you’re likely to wait. If a police officer tells you that he or she is going to search your car, you are probably not going to be in a position to refuse.
Accordingly, the recognition that the police officer is reaching beyond the bounds of that which is constitutionally permissible may not necessarily prevent the officer from holding you or searching your vehicle.
However, if the officer inquires beyond the permissible scope, detains you longer than necessary or searches your vehicle without having legitimate grounds for doing so, you have protection. Anything that an officer discovers by infringing upon your constitutional right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures cannot be used against you in a court of law.
There is one other noteworthy exception: consent. Although generally a law enforcement officer is relatively restricted during a traffic stop, if you consent to a search, anything the officer finds can be used against you. Be wise. If a police officer asks for permission to search your vehicle, just say no.
For more information regarding the constitutional protections related to traffic stops in New York, speak with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.