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When does a traffic stop turn into an illegal action by police?

A large percentage of drug and firearms charges result from routine traffic stops. Police often pull motorists over for speeding or other moving violations and begin looking for evidence of illegal drugs, weapons or anything else suspicious.

What are a motorist's legal rights when a traffic stop extends too long or escalates into an overly aggressive attempt by police to find something more? A 2015 Supreme Court decision, Rodriguez v. United States, helps protect motorists' Fourth Amendment right against illegal searches. The ruling states that "authority for the seizure... ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are - or reasonably should have been - completed."

The Rodriguez case actually occurred in Nebraska in March 2012. An officer saw Dennys Rodriguez veer on to the shoulder of a Nebraska state highway and then return to the road. The officer conducted a routine driver's license check, wrote a warning and presented the warning to Rodriguez, but he was not allowed to leave at that point. Instead, Rodriguez was forced to wait several more minutes until another officer arrived and walked a K-9 dog around the car. The dog alerted the officers to a large bag of methamphetamine and Rodriguez was arrested.

In this case, the majority of Supreme Court justices did not agree with the Department of Justice's argument that law enforcement officers should be able to handle traffic stops in any fashion they deem necessary, including holding motorists beyond the time it takes to issue a citation for any offense that predicated the stop.

The important thing for motorists to know when pulled over for a traffic violation is they should be able to leave once an officer has completed the roadway enforcement business. If an officer is detaining a motorist beyond that time and cannot articulate why he or she is doing so, they have unreasonably prolonged the detention.

It is critical to understand your rights when stopped by police and to contact a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer whenever you feel your rights have been violated.

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