The only encounter most people ever have with police is a traffic stop, and its no different. Probably everyone has been stopped at some point in time – rightly or wrongly. While traffic charges are not generally serious, they do involve a number of rights that we all have as both United States and Texas citizens.
Everyone has a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures; that is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. What that means generally, is that the police must have a reason to stop you, or search you. It is important to remember that they need a reason to stop you. They cannot simply see someone driving down the road, and decide to pull them over to see what they are up to. They need a reason to believe they are doing something wrong or illegal. The most common reason people are stopped is the violation of some traffic law. A police officer may believe you are speeding, or your license and registration is not current, or perhaps some of the equipment on your car is not operating correctly. All of those are valid reasons to stop you, and they give the officer “probable cause” to do that.
You need to know what your rights are if you are stopped. If you are like most people, you are nervous and anxious when you see the lights behind you. You can be obeying all the laws, and not doing anything wrong, and still be nervous. It is simply a fact of human nature, that probably has to with attitudes toward authority. You probably have been taught to respect authority, and particularly police officers. They are there to protect, and to preserve public safety. When you were younger, you probably got in trouble if you treated an officer with anything less than what your parents thought was courtesy. Being nervous, and respecting authority have gotten more people in trouble than anything else.
You need to know what the police can and cannot do. They can ask you to get out of your car, and many officers feel it is safer to do that. Just because they can ask you to get out of the car does not mean they can search you though. The police cannot search you unless they have a specific reason to be concerned for their safety. If they see something that looks like a weapon, or if you are acting in a suspicious manner, they may be able to search you to see if you are carrying a weapon. The scope of this kind of search is limited. Since they are making sure you are not armed, they can only look for weapons. Generally that involves patting down the outside of your clothing. If they feel something they believe is a weapon, then they can reach inside your pockets, and retrieve it.
It is amazing to me how many people I have seen over the years who admit they are carrying drugs, or some type of weapon. Many times, that would have never been discovered unless they had admitted it. Police officers frequently ask if you have any drugs or weapons in the car. You don’t have to answer that question. As long as you are outside the car, they have no reason to look inside. Since their concern is supposed to be for their safety, they are only allowed to look in areas you might be able to retrieve a weapon from. If you are standing outside your car, you do not have access to the inside, especially with an officer standing there over you. Again, it is amazing the number of people who admit they have something inside their car. Since there is nothing to prevent the officer from asking the question, they routinely do so.
Whenever you are stopped, the police have the right to determine if you have any outstanding warrants. Warrants can be issued for failing to pay traffic fines, as well as more serious offenses. They check by calling in to a dispatcher, who will run your name through the computer system. They will also check to make sure your license is valid. Sometimes this is done fairly quickly, and sometimes it takes longer. An officer is authorized to detain you for a reasonable amount of time, so that they can complete this check.
Assuming everything is clear and you do not have warrants, and your license is valid, the officer will decide what to do. They can issue you a ticket or a warning. Once that is done, the stop is complete. In Texas, as long as you have a current license, you must be released for traffic offenses. You will be asked to sign a ticket, in which you promise to appear for Court. This is the only time a police officer cannot arrest you, and take you to jail. If your license is not valid, or if you are given a ticket for some other offense, you can be taken to jail.
If the stop is complete, and the officer gives you a ticket or warning you are free to go. At this point, it is common to ask for consent to search. You do not have to give that, but many people do. You may ask why you should refuse, especially if you do not have anything to hide. You do not need a reason to refuse. It is a right that has been guaranteed. Our Country was founded on the idea we should be free from Governmental intrusion, and control over our lives. Many people have fought and died for that belief. When you refuse a search, you are asserting those rights that are the foundation of our Country.
On a more practical level, once you give consent the police are free to search everywhere. They can search throughout your car, and they are under no obligation to return it to the same condition. Also, they are free to basically take as long as they want. By agreeing to allow them to search your car, you may end up prolonging the stop.
Most officers are honest dedicated public servants, and those in Waco and McLennan County are no different. As with any profession there are always a few that are not, and some that want to push the limits. Unfortunately, you do not know which is which until it is too late. Encounters with the police do not have to be antagonistic or confrontational. By knowing your rights you can get through it with the least amount of stress possible.
If you want to know more about the criminal justice system check out our free Guide to the Criminal Justice System.