As I’ve reported before, police can’t stop you and search you for no reason. And when police try to search you without a warrant, their actions can create more questions—and defenses—than answers.

We’ve waded into choppy, murky legal waters here, so understand what we’re talking about: limits on police power to stop you and search without a warrant. And similar rules apply to officers extending a traffic stop to question you about potential crimes unrelated to the reason for the stop—like pulling you over for a broken taillight but then asking about illegal drug possession.

Today, we’re going to talk about the basics of this complex area of the law. Keep in mind how high the stakes are for you. A police investigation that violates your constitutional rights can prevent you from exposure to a long prison sentence for a drug conviction.

Limits on Police Power to Stop, Search, or Question You at a Traffic Stop About Matters Unrelated to the Stop

The overall thing to remember is that these intrusions are legally required to be as brief as possible. The length of the stop and the extent of questioning must be no longer than necessary to address its purpose. Both duration and questioning must be strictly tied to the reasons why the officer is suspicious.

  • Content of questions. Officers can ask a “moderate number” of questions about your identity and information related to the officer’s suspicions. Yes, the law says “moderate,” and that term is naturally ambiguous. That’s a reason to get an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can point out to the judge how the questions weren’t “moderate” in number at all.
  • Length of the stop. The stop can be prolonged or extended only if the officer’s suspicions are confirmed—or new, legitimate suspicions develop. You have no obligation to answer and must be released unless your answers give probable cause for an arrest. How long is too long? It depends on the circumstances. Thirty minutes has been held too long, but 90 minutes has been ruled to be okay. It just depends on the case. You’ll need a skilled criminal defense attorney to show how your case got unlawfully extended.
  • A related search. A patdown search can go no further than confirming you’re unarmed, unless officers can tell by the “plain feel” of an object that it’s illegal.

Yes, You Need Professional Help

As you can see, the law is vague and driven by the specific facts of each case. Similar facts can result in different outcomes. That’s why you need a skilled legal advocate to research and review your case with a trained eye, to design the best legal strategy to convince a judge or prosecutor the search is invalid. That way, incriminating evidence can be thrown out, or the prosecutor might offer a deal you can live with.

So if you’re wondering about all these complicated legal issues and the potentially dire consequences you face, contact us with an email or live chat to get started building your defense and working on your complicated problem right now.


Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a workers' compensation attorney.
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