Car Stops: Police Search and Seizure

Do you know what your rights are in traffic stop encounters with the police?

“As a Constitutional Law professor at NYIT, whenever I taught the topic of 4th amendment rights regarding the State’s power in search and seizure, the college students particularly perked up in their awareness and paid close attention to that lecture,” said James Misiano of Misiano Law in Hauppauge, N.Y. “They all either were stopped, had friends who were stopped, or heard of traffic stops that evolved into a search of the car for contraband.”

The defining US Supreme Court case, Mapp vs the State of Ohio, and a vast variety of cases that followed, define what police can and can’t do. There are many nuances and gray areas, and like most interpretations in the law, it is not black and white. However, an understanding of the law in this area can be helpful to the motorist.

When one is stopped by a police officer at a traffic stop, the officer does not have blanket authority to search the inside of your car, particularly the glove compartment, trunk and inside your console. An officer may ask you to open the glove compartment or trunk, etc. (it may sound like a demand), but you may legitimately refuse to do so. In that event, the officer must get a warrant to search the car by setting forth “probable” or “reasonable” cause to believe contraband exists to a judge.

If you simply disobeyed a traffic control device or were speeding, such violations of the vehicle and traffic law do not constitute probable cause that there are illegal drugs in your glove compartment, and no search may ensue.   A gun or drugs that are in plain view of the police officer may be seized – but simply stated – the officer does not have carte blanche to turn your car upside down.  If the officer does, voice your objections and record the exchange on your cell phone.

“I have been called by clients at a stop and I recommended filming the incident contemporaneously,” said Misiano. “In all of the incidences, the police officer stopped the illegal search.”

“Recently in Nassau County District Court, I had a client accused of possessing various illegal controlled substances (drugs). He was ostensibly stopped – according to the two undercover police officers – for making a left turn without a signal. At the stop, they claimed they saw drugs in plain view in the back seat and they went on to do a full search of my client’s vehicle. I moved (by written motion) for a probable cause or “MAPP” hearing before the judge. The police officers testified under oath. Under cross-examination, it was learned that they never issued a traffic ticket to my client for the failure to signal his turn. It was clear that a black man entered my client’s vehicle, had a short conversation and left the car. It was obvious to me, and eventually the court, that this was the reason for the stop – an impermissible reason – racial profiling.”

“Both officers gave divergent accounts as to where the undercover car was in relation to my client’s vehicle, how they followed his vehicle and what my client did before the traffic stop. The court found that the “failure to signal” was a pre-text to stop the vehicle, and in fact, the stop was illegal. Since the stop was illegal, any evidence found thereafter was inadmissible in a court of law – known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” per Mapp case. The prosecution, now unable to present evidence of the crime, had to withdraw their prosecution of the case and my client went free. This is an illustration of police failure to obey search and seizure laws.”

Traffic stops routinely result in arrests beyond the original traffic infraction. Holding police accountable to constitutional standards is what lawyers do every day.

“If a traffic stop results in something more serious, call me,” said Misiano. “I know what to do.”