During a traffic stop, law enforcement officers are generally not permitted to detain a motorist for any longer than is reasonably necessary to complete the purpose of the traffic stop. In most cases the purpose of a traffic stop is to write a warning or traffic citation. Law enforcement may only extend the detention of the motorist beyond the purpose of the stop when, during the normal course of the traffic stop, the officer develops a reasonable suspicion that other illegal activity is occurring. This further investigation may include calling a drug dog to perform a sniff of the vehicle. If the officer does not develop a reasonable suspicion of additional illegal activity, the officer must permit the motorist to leave.
For many years law enforcement across the country have been actively engaged in the so-called “war on drugs”. In their fight, law enforcement agencies, and in particular state police or state patrols, have been employing a tactic known as “drug interdiction”. Drug interdiction involves stopping a motorist for a seemingly routine, minor traffic infraction with the real purpose of exploiting and expanding that stop into a full-fledged vehicle search for drugs, contraband and cash. Many law enforcement agencies have teams of officers specially trained in drug interdiction efforts. The officers are trained to stop motorists from states such California and Colorado, where certain drugs are legal.
Once the motorist is stopped, the officer informs the motorist that a warning, and not a citation, will be issued for the traffic infraction. A warning is given because the nervousness of an innocent motorist should allegedly subside when the motorist learns he or she will receive a warning. During the course of the stop, the officer will pay close attention to the motorist’s physical behaviors in hopes of noticing some behavior, such as shaky hands or hard breathing, which are allegedly indicative of nervousness.
While the officer approaches the motorist’s vehicle, the officer peers into the vehicle to examine its contents. Often, no matter what the inside of the vehicle looks like, the officer will claim it is suspicious. For example, if a motorist claims to be travelling cross country and the vehicle’s interior is very clean, the officer will claim that said cleanliness is suspicious. According to a well trained drug interdiction officer a person travelling such a long distance should have food, drink, maps, or luggage etc., in the vehicle. the lack of said items is supposedly suspicious. Conversely, if a motorist claims to be driving cross country and the vehicle is filled with food, drink, luggage, maps etc., the officer will claim that these are indicators of hard travel. According to the well trained interdiction officer hard travel is suspicious because people who travel hard are trying to evade detection by law enforcement. Thus, either set of facts is characterized as suspicious.
The officer then orders the motorist into the front of the patrol car. While the motorist is detained in the patrol car, the officer fills out the warning ticket and conducts a “motorist interview”. This interview initially involves asking the motorist a plethora of questions about travel plans, destination and the purpose of the motorist’s travel. Eventually, the interview devolves into questions about the motorists private life, work and family. This is not a formal interview. The officer will attempt to ask these questions as if it were merely a casual conversation.
Upon completion of the warning ticket, the law enforcement officer will return the motorist’s license and registration and explain that the motorist is free to go. However, as soon as the motorist exits the patrol car, the officer exits as well and immediately questions the motorist about the presence of drugs, contraband or money in the motorist’s vehicle. The officer then asks to search the motorist’s vehicle. If the motorist declines, the officer will re-detain the motorist and call for a drug dog to come sniff the motorist’s vehicle. The officer uses any inconsistent answers given by the motorist, physical observations of the motorist and observations of the interior of the motorist’s vehicle to claim that there is reasonable suspicion to believe the motorist is engaged in illegal activity. If the officer has reasonable suspicion then the re-detention of the motorist is permitted under the 4th Amendment.
While drug interdiction can be a totally proper function of law enforcement, officers must still act within the bounds of the 4th Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. All persons have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. That right extends to the roadsides of America’s interstates.
During drug interdiction stops officers detain persons beyond the purpose of the traffic stop claiming that the general observations of the motorist, the motorist’s responses to questions, and the observations of the motorist’s vehicle give the officer a reasonable suspicion that additional illegal activity is afoot. However, often most of these observations are the result of general nervousness and regular travel habits which are neither unique nor generally suspicious. If a motorist is able to recognize the difference between a drug interdiction stop and routine traffic stop, the motorist can effectively control the situation and limit the information available to the officer from which the officer could claim a reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity. When subject to an interdiction stop simply remain calm, request the officer complete the ticket as quickly as possible and refuse to answer any questions unrelated to information needed to fill out the ticket. This will severely limit the information available to the officer searching for a basis to expand the stop and search your vehicle.