When a California driver is stopped by a law enforcement officer for a traffic violation but then also charged with drug possession or another drug crime as part of this traffic stop, it can be a very serious complication. Depending on what the law enforcement officer did, and when and how he or she did it, to arrive at the conclusion that a drug charge was warranted, the driver’s constitutional rights may have been violated and the drug charge may not hold up in court.
For instance, a law enforcement officer does not have the automatic right to search a vehicle as part of a routine traffic stop. As the Legal Information Institute explains, that is because the U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio that a law enforcement officer cannot automatically do a stop and frisk as part of the investigation into a traffic violation. Instead, these Terry stops can only last as long as it takes the officer to investigate the traffic violation itself.
The subsequent Rodriguez case
For a traffic stop per se, the officer does not need to have probable cause to believe that anyone in the vehicle is engaged in criminal activity. In a nonvehicular stop and frisk, the officer does need such probable cause. The Washington Post reported that in the case of Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court held that if an officer extends a traffic stop for even a short time beyond that required to complete the traffic violation investigation, such extension is a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights.
In other words, an officer may not investigate a nonrelated crime, including a drug crime, as part of his or her traffic violation investigation. In addition, the only circumstance where the officer may search the vehicle without the consent of the driver is when drugs are plainly visible inside when the officer looks through the windows. Without the existence of this “plain view” exception situation, the officer can only check the driver’s registration, insurance and driver’s license, check for outstanding warrants for him or her, and write the ticket(s).