Routine Stop

A routine traffic stop is considered a temporary detention. Thus, the usual Fourth Amendment rights, such as Miranda warnings, are not necessary. During a routine stop, the driver may be questioned, asked to present identification, a license, registration and/or proof of automobile insurance. The routine stop does not allow an officer to:

  • search the vehicle
  • search the driver and passengers

A search may proceed after an arrest or if the driver consents.

TIP: It is common for officers to ask questions if you are stopped for a traffic violation, such as "Have you been drinking?" "Did you just come from a club?" or "What are you doing out so late?" Do not answer them if you do not want to incriminate yourself. You have the right to remain silent (except to confirm the accuracy of the information on your driver's license, insurance and registration) and ask to speak to your attorney.

TIP: Miranda warnings are not required at a traffic stop. Therefore, if you answer the officer's questions and incriminate yourself in criminal activity during a routine stop, you cannot later complain that you were not given a Miranda warning, and your statements will be admissible in a criminal proceeding.

Does a routine stop mean a police officer can stop me for no reason at all?

No. You may not be stopped or detained unless the officer has a justifiable reason.

Sidebar: A justifiable reason to stop a motorist is not necessary at a checkpoint or roadblock.

I was stopped by a police officer and was not given a reason. Do I have to wait while he checks my driver's license in his computer?

Yes. If you were stopped for a valid reason, the officer has the right to complete computerized inquires concerning your license, driving record, vehicle and criminal history. Once the computer check is completed, you are free to go if your license is valid and you do not have any outstanding warrants.

How long can I be detained at a routine stop?

You can be detained only as long as it takes the officer to complete the business of the traffic stop (e.g., checking your driver's license, registration and license plates). He is allowed time to conduct a reasonable investigation and no more.

TIP: You can be detained for a longer period of time if the officer, during routine stop, makes a discovery that requires further investigation. For example, if she sees an open beer bottle in your car, she may be justified in detaining you for a sobriety test.

I was stopped and the officer wrote me a ticket but he continued to stand my window, questioning me with the patrol lights flashing on his car. Have I been illegally detained?

Yes. The officer has detained you by remaining at your window, talking to you and leaving his patrol lights on. No reasonable person could assume they were free to go in that situation. The lawful routine traffic stop turned into an unlawful detention after the ticket was written.

Can a police officer ask if I have drugs or weapons in my possession or in my vehicle during a routine traffic stop?

If there is nothing to justify the questioning, the officer is simply fishing for information. Unless the officer has a suspicion of criminal activity, his questions turn the routine traffic stop into an unlawful detention.

TIP: During a routine traffic stop, the officer is permitted to ask for a driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance. The officer is also permitted to ask your destination and purpose for going there.

If the police officer who stopped me begins questioning passengers in my vehicle, am I being illegally detained?

No. The officer can question your passenger concerning your destination and purpose for going to the location in order to verify your answers.

TIP: The officer can continue to question the driver and passengers if their initial responses conflicted until any suspicions concerning destination and purpose are resolved.