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Traffic Stops

For most of us, the traffic stop is the method by which we come into contact with police officers.
A traffic stop can occur for many reasons, valid or invalid.
Most frequently, a traffic stop occurs as the result of a traffic violation. A traffic violation is a non-criminal offense that can only result in the issuance of a traffic ticket. However, it does give the police officer a good reason to stop you. What happens from there may lead to a criminal arrest, depending on the circumstances.
Miami-Dade and Broward have multiple police agencies, such as municipal agencies (ex: Miramar Police Department, Hollywood Police Department, Coral Gables Police Department), county agencies (ex: Miami-Dade Police Department, Broward Sheriff's Office), and statewide agencies (Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, Florida Highway Patrol).
These agencies have the ability to pull you over when you are driving on any highway in their respective city, or county. The county-wide agencies, such as the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Broward Sheriff's Office, have the authority to pull you over anywhere, so long as you are driving within the limits of their county. A municipal agency, such as the Miramar Police Department or the Coral Gables Police Department, can only pull you over within city limits. There are a few exceptions (if an officer pursues you into another city). The statewide agencies, such as the Florida Highway Patrol, can pull you over on any road in the State of Florida.
When a traffic stop occurs, apply your turn signal and pull over as soon as it is safe to do so. If you are on a desolate road at night time, look for a well-lit, populated place to pull over. If you doubt that the car following you is a real police car; call 911. There have been incidents of officer-impersonation robberies where the impersonators drive cars outfitted with police lights and sirens.
When you pull over, keep your hands on the steering wheel until the officer approaches and asks for your driver's license, insurance, and registration. If you are fumbling or if your hands are not in sight, you will make the officer nervous. His or her job is hard enough - make it easier by cooperating.
The officer will ask for your driver's license, insurance, and proof of registration. You must have all three in your possession in order to drive in the State of Florida. If you do not, you can be cited. If your driver's license is suspended or your registration has lapsed, you may be arrested or issued a promise to appear (PTA).
Most traffic stops are for traffic-related purposes. You may get a ticket, you may get a warning. It depends on the officer, and it also depends on how you treat them. Don't cop (no pun intended) an attitude or try to argue with them. But don't go ahead and incriminate yourself either (by saying, "Oh yeah, Officer, I was doing about ninety back there, wasn't I?"). Just be polite, be compliant, and try to understand that they are just doing their job (as unfair as it may seem to you at the time). If you are issued a traffic citation, sign it! Many people get indignant and refuse to sign. This a crime for which you can be arrested. Signing a traffic ticket only means that you agree to appear in court. It is not an admission of guilt. If you want to contest your traffic ticket, go to court and set it for trial. If you want to pay it, go to court anyway so that the judge may give you a withhold of adjudication (you won't get points on your driver's license). If you pay the ticket online, you will be adjudicated and you will get points.
I do not handle traffic tickets on a regular basis. I strongly recommend hiring an attorney who specializes in traffic infractions. I handle criminal defense and criminal traffic (DWLS, reckless driving, DUI, LSA) exclusively.
So what if the traffic stop turns into more than a ticket? Most of my drug cases come to me this way: a cop smells or detects some contraband in the car, and somehow gets to search the car. Then they find drugs.
The 4th Amendment prohibits unlawful search and seizure, stating that police must obtain a search warrant in order to search your property. In order to get this warrant, the officer must present probable cause to a judge, who must then sign the warrant.
However, most vehicle searches are done without a warrant. There are few exceptions that allow officers to search a car without a warrant.
The most common exception is consent. If you give your consent to search, the search will most likely be upheld as valid. Now this is not a hard and fast rule. You should discuss any consent search with your attorney. Remember - consent must be freely and voluntarily given. If the cop threatened you, had possession of your driver's license when he or she asked to search, or if you really never consented, you may have a strong defense on your hands and one that should be brought to the attention of your criminal lawyer.
Also, the scope, or the amount of consent given, should be examined. Did you consent to the entire car being searched, or just the passenger area? Did you consent to a backpack lying on the back seat being searched? Consent to search doesn't necessarily give the officer free reign to toss the entire car and everything in it.
Another exception is called the "plain view" exception. In so many words - if the cop sees it, he or she can search it.
If they pull you over for speeding and they see a bag of weed on the passenger seat, they can lawfully search the car to the extent that they believe there may be contraband present.
Another exception, of course, is called an inventory search. If you get arrested for some reason (say DWLS), and your car is towed and impounded, the police must search the car to "inventory" the items found inside. This is so you can't come back and claim that the police department stole your belongings when you come to reclaim the car. This also gives the officers the ability to search for contraband under the guise of a legal search.
The bottom line is that police encounters are intimidating. However, no matter how scared you may be, it's important to remember that you have rights. So exercise them! If you do not want a police officer to search your car, politely say no. They may threaten to bring in the drug dogs, but they will have no basis to do so. Believe me, if a cop has probable cause to search without a warrant, they will. If they are asking you, it's because they don't have probable cause and they want you to give it to them. Don't make the case against you stronger.
I practice criminal defense in Miami-Dade and Broward. I am a former Miami-Dade prosecutor and have dealt with thousands of search and seizure issues involving traffic stops.
Call me to discuss your case.