Should a California law enforcement officer pull you over for an alleged traffic violation and ask to search your car as part of his or her investigation, you have the legal right to respectfully decline to give your permission to the search.

Under the law, an officer can do only the following four things during a traffic stop:

  1. Request your driver’s license, proof of insurance and registration
  2. Investigate only the alleged traffic offense for which (s)he stopped you
  3. Call the dispatcher to determine if you have one or more outstanding warrants
  4. Issue you the appropriate ticket(s)

(S)he cannot turn the traffic investigation into a criminal investigation, such as a search for drugs. One exception, however, applies. If the officer sees drugs or open alcohol containers in plain view when looking in your car windows, then the police can search your car without your consent.

When a traffic stop ends

Once the officer does the above four listed things, the traffic stop ends and (s)he must let you go. Not matter what law enforcement may suspect you have in your car, they cannot prolong the investigation to await the arrival of drug-sniffing dogs. Why? Because over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court declared more than once that a traffic stop’s only purpose is to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.”

Technically, an officer cannot even question you about drugs or anything else other than your alleged traffic violation. Unfortunately, however, many officers attempt to engage an alleged traffic violator in conversations that can incriminate that person with regard to crimes. Again, you have the legal right to respectfully decline to answer any question an officer may ask you about drugs, alcohol or anything else not specifically related to the alleged traffic offense for which (s)he stopped you in the first place.