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Hey That’s My Stuff! (Traffic Stops in Minnesota)

What can police search if you get pulled over in Minnesota?

Traffic Stops in MN | You’ve probably seen it a thousand times on TV:  a car gets pulled over, the driver is ordered out, and the car is searched.  But since these aren’t always necessarily realistic scenes, and since you probably don’t regularly get pulled over by the police, many people aren’t sure about what exactly Minnesota police are allowed to do once they’ve stopped a driver.

What is a traffic stop?

A traffic stop in Minnesota is a limited investigatory stop of a driver.  A police officer is allowed to make this kind of stop if he has a “particularized and objective basis” for suspecting that the person stopped is involved in criminal activity.  A traffic stop is different than an arrest, which would require a higher degree of suspicion by the police officer (what is called “Probable Cause”)

So what constitutes a “particularized and objective basis”?  For one, seeing the driver violate a traffic law, no matter how insignificant the law is.  That means that even minor traffic offenses, like driving too slowly or failing to signal a turn, are legitimate grounds for a traffic stop.  There is a limit to what constitutes grounds for a traffic stop, though; for example, a police officer seeing a driver suddenly pull over and change seats with the passenger wouldn’t be enough to support a stop.  The legal phrase that is use is the stop may not be based on “mere whim, caprice, idle curiosity.”

When a search can be performed

Once stopped Police officers cannot necessarily perform any searches if it is for  a simple traffic violation.  Assuming a police officer has legitimately pulled you over, the ensuing investigation must be related in scope and duration to what you were pulled over for.  So, for example, the police can’t stop you for having a burned-out headlight and then, without any further suspicion, search the car for drugs.  The police also can’t detain you for a long period of time to question you about an unrelated matter if you were pulled over for a traffic violation.

However, a couple of different situations may allow the police to search you, your car, or parts of your car.  One such situation is if the police have a reasonable belief that someone in the car is dangerous and could gain immediate control of a weapon.  This might be the case if, for example, the police stop someone they believe has just committed a robbery using a weapon.  If there is reasonable belief that one of the car occupants is dangerous and could gain immediate control of a weapon, the police are justified in searching areas in reach of the occupants where a weapon could be hidden.  Another situation that might allow a search of your car would be if there were drugs lying in plain view of the police officer inside the car, or if the officer could smell a drug, such as marijuana, during the traffic stop.

If events such as these happen during the stop and give the officer a reasonable and articulable suspicion of some kind of criminal activity, the officer may be able to extend the scope of the stop, which could include asking you for your consent to search the car.  If the officer asks for your consent to a search of the car, the officer must have had reasonable suspicion to make that request.  If you refuse to allow the officer to search the car, the officer may ask you to step out of the car so that the officer can seal the car and attempt to obtain a search warrant.

This is a complex area of law, and if you are ever charged with an offense based on evidence found during a search of you or your car after you were pulled over, you should talk with an attorney to determine if the search was in fact lawful, since if the search wasn’t lawful, the evidence found in your car will generally not be admissible or used against you.