Traffic Stops, Searches, and Seizures

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A traffic stop, search, and seizure refers to the legal act of stopping an automobile, searching it, and seizing contraband or any material that is considered as evidence. This process does not require a warrant under certain conditions, even though the constitution protects citizens from unlawful stops and searches. According to the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, it is unlawful for a citizen to be subjected to a process that infringes on their rights (Bergman, 2021).

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This provision has undergone several debates in the past decades, and the concept of “reasonable” has been interpreted by various legal experts in order to enhance comprehension. The exclusionary rule forbids the use of any evidence in court that was obtained through an illegal process. One of the major challenges that many motorists face is the influence of racial bias in law enforcement. Discriminatory stops are illegal because they violate the constitutional rights of drivers, and promote racism in the justice system. It is important for individuals to understand the law regarding traffic stops in order to avoid victimization.

Legal Search and Seizure

As mentioned earlier, the constitution of the United States protects the citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, there are exceptions to this statute. In certain cases, the law gives police officers the authority to look in a vehicle that has been stopped for a traffic infraction and take any material that they consider evidence of involvement in a crime (Bergman, 2021). A search is conducted only if the driver gives permission to an officer, if he/she has been detained, or if there is suspicion that the motorist is in possession of evidence of a crime. In addition, it could be done in case the occupants of the car pose a security threat (Seo, 2019).

According to the law, an officer is allowed to request the driver to search the vehicle, even though they do not have a warrant (Bergman, 2021). In such cases, consent can either be given or denied. Illegal searches are unconstitutional, and the law does not allow prosecutors to use the evidence obtained in court. On the contrary, if permission is given, then any evidence obtained in the process is lawful and can be used against in a court of law.

In many states, guidelines governing search and seizures during traffic stops are not very strict. For example, a police officer may look for evidence in areas within the driver’s vicinity if they feel threatened or if they have reason to believe that the car contains weapons (Seo, 2019). The search incident to arrest (SITA) doctrine or the Chimel rule gives police the power to look for evidence without a warrant from an individual who has been arrested (Bergman, 2021). This includes areas within the suspect’s reach; this is legal if it fosters the officer’s security, preserves evidence, and stops the suspect from escaping. Traffic stops for minor offences such as over speeding or expired registration do not warrant a search or seizure, unless the motorist’s behavior is deemed as a security threat (Seo, 2019).

According to the plain view doctrine, a police officer is allowed to confiscate any evidence that is in plain view and look for related paraphernalia (Bergman, 2021). For example, if they notice a pipe with a drug residue on the passenger seat during a traffic stop, then the law gives them the authority to take it. This is followed by a thorough probe for associated paraphernalia. However, the indiscriminate search of the vehicle is illegal. For example, an officer cannot pat the car’s occupant because he saw a weapon on the back seat. According to the law, the hunt should only be related to the weapon. This doctrine has a wide scope because it encompasses any evidence that a police officer or a drug-sniffing dog notices in a vehicle after a traffic stop.

Applicable Constitutional Provisions and Court Cases

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, even though this is not always the case. A vehicular inspection during a traffic stop requires the police officer to have a warrant that has been issued by a judge (Seo, 2019). However, the Supreme Court has created several exceptions to make the enforcement of law easier during traffic stops. Each exemption gives the guidelines that officers are required to follow in order to ensure that the constitutional rights of individuals are not violated. A traffic stop is legal if there is evidence that a motorist does not have a license or the vehicle is unregistered (Bergman, 2021). In that case, those reasons could be used as probable causes to justify a search.

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Carroll v. United States, 267 US 132 (1925)

The ruling made by the Supreme Court was monumental and highly significant: the holding gave police officers the right to conduct vehicular inspection without warrants. On December 15 1921, undercover prohibition agents arrested Carroll after conducting a warrantless search of his automobile during a chance meeting in which they recovered 68 bottles of banned whiskey (Seo, 2019). The Supreme Court described the action as constitutional because the officers had suspicions that the vehicle was carrying illegal materials.

This case had a significant impact because it upheld the search of automobiles without warrants and it also widened the scope of such activities. It led to the development of the Carroll Doctrine, which is used in courts to this day (Seo, 2019). The policy gives police officers the authority to conduct warrantless vehicular inspections based on the suspicion that they could be ferrying illegal materials that could link the driver or occupants to a crime.

John Brenton Preston, Petitioner, V. United States, 305 F.2d 172 (6th Cir. 1962)

John Brenton Preston, John Richard Sykes, and Kenneth Ray Strunk were convicted of conspiracy to rob the Union Bank of Berry in 1961. The case was heard in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, and the ruling was based on evidence obtained from a car search and seizure (Legal Information Institute, n.d.). The suspects were accosted by police officers who had received a call regarding three men sitting in a stationary car on 10th & Monmouth Streets in Newport. After questioning them, the officers arrested the three individuals for vagrancy and after searching their car, they found two weapons (Legal Information Institute, n.d.).

An additional charge of carrying a loaded weapon was added. The court ruled that the arrest and the vehicle’s inspection were valid because the individuals’ activities were suspicious and upon questioning, they gave evasive answers (Legal Information Institute, n.d.). This case augmented an earlier ruling that a police officer can examine the contents of a car if they have a probable cause.

Frank Chambers v. James F. Maroney 399 U.S. 42 (1970)

In this case, a car that matched the description of an automobile used in a gas station robbery was stopped by the police. The occupants’ clothes matched those of the robbers, and as a result, they were arrested and their car taken to the station (Bergman, 2021). The Court held that the Carroll Doctrine applied, and therefore, the constitutional rights of the driver and the occupants were not violated (Bergman, 2021). The officers’ probable cause was the reason for the search, even though it was not conducted at the exact place where the traffic stop took place. The holding of the case had a significant impact because it expanded the scope of the automobile exception doctrine.

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State of New York v. Roger Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981)

A New York State police officer stopped a vehicle for over speeding and found out that it was not connected to any of the occupants. In addition, he smelled marijuana and noticed a small envelope that he suspected contained the drug. He arrested them for the illegal possession of marijuana, and found cocaine in Belton’s jacket after searching the car’s glove compartment (New York v. Belton, n.d.).

The petitioners claimed that the evidence against them was obtained in an unconstitutional manner because their rights were violated. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ruled that the process was constitutional and therefore legal, even though the ruling was overturned by the New York Court of Appeals (New York v. Belton, n.d.). The Supreme Court held that a police officer can search a car, including its compartments, given that the occupants have been placed under arrest (New York v. Belton, n.d.). The decision to look for evidence in Belton’s jacket was made after he was arrested, therefore legal. The holding established a bright-line rule, stating that a police officer could examine an automobile’s compartments and all its contents without a warrant if the occupants have been placed under arrest.

Issues regarding Traffic Stops, Search, and Seizures

The aforementioned court rulings and holdings have revealed several issues regarding traffic stops, searches and seizures. First, it is very challenging to determine the concept of “reasonableness” as a right that drivers have. The constitution requires all processes to be reasonable, but it does not provide a succinct explanation as to what constitutes a reasonable action (Seo, 2019). This can be deemed to delegate the authority to determine whether it is reasonable or not in the hands of the police officer.

Warrantless searches are usually considered unconstitutional unless they fit the requirements of exceptions as provided by the Supreme Court of the United States (Ohlin, 2020). In such cases, the court rules based on the need to balance individual privacy and the enforcement of law. However, legal bias could alter the outcomes of cases.

Second, the law encourages bias because it does not delineate the process of establishing a probable cause. Research studies have shown on numerous occasions that racial discrimination is one of the causes of traffic stops, searches and seizures (Ohlin, 2020). This is augmented by the widespread racial disparities found in arrests and incarcerations. Surveys have shown that African American drivers are more likely to be stopped by police officers than white drivers.

Moreover, Latino and African Americans are more likely to be victimized than white people. The majority of traffic stops do not end in arrests. However, the racialized nature of the majority of them creates a rift between the police and communities (Ohlin, 2020). In cases where an officer does not have a probable cause to conduct a search but uses race as a reason and ends up finds incriminating evidence, the court is required to repress the evidence. However, in many cases, the evidence is accepted and the suspects indicted for possession of drugs or weapons.

I feel that the aforementioned issues cause harm and trauma to motorists, rather than promote their safety. It is important for the law to clearly define what characterizes a reasonable search and seizure. This is important so that racial bias can be eliminated as a factor that matters in traffic-stop interactions between police officers and citizens. In certain situations, these contacts have led to life-threatening situations because motorists felt that they were being victimized because of their race or ethnicity. The use of pretextual stops as justification for conducting illegal searches is a persistent law-enforcement challenge. In order to stop this phenomenon, it is important for policymakers to reevaluate traffic offenses in order to decrease interactions between police officers and motorists.

The Position Taken in the Paper

This paper concludes that traffic stops, searches, and seizures are constitutional, even though sometimes, racial bias invalidates their legality. They serve several functions: they reduce the number of traffic violations, improve public safety, lower crime, and enhance the collection of intelligence. Traffic stops have the potential to change the behaviors of motorists for fear of receiving citations (Ohlin, 2020). Moreover, they improve public safety by lowering the prevalence of crime through the arrest of criminals. The information collected by officers during traffic stops can be used to uncover crimes that were not revealed during interactions with drivers or clear criminal incidents that were reported to law enforcement agencies.


The Fourth Amendment contains provisions that protect the US citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, cases of biased stops based on race or ethnicity have been reported. The holding in Carroll v. United States was highly significant because it led to the creation of a principle that authorized vehicular warrantless searches based on the suspicion that an automobile could be ferrying illegal goods. The Supreme Court of the United States has created several exemptions to the law. A law enforcement officer needs a good reason to examine the contents of a vehicle because in many instances, drivers do not give consent upon request.

The plain view doctrine allows a police officer to seize evidence that is in plain view and conduct a thorough examination for related paraphernalia. However, any evidence obtained during an illegal search is impermissible in court. The exclusionary rule forbids the use of any evidence that was obtained through activities that violated the Fourth Amendment rights an individual. Racial bias is one of the most pervasive challenges in the American justice system that have adverse effects. It is important for police officers to follow the law in order to avoid violating the constitutional rights of motorists.


Bergman, P. (2021). Criminal law: A desk reference (5th ed.). NOLO.

Legal Information Institute. John Brenton Preston v. United States. (n.d.). Cornell Law School. Web.

New York v. Belton.” (n.d.). Oyez. Web.

Ohlin, J. D. (2020). Criminal procedure: Doctrine, application, and practice. Wolters Kluwer.

Seo, S. A. (2019). Policing the open road: How cars transformed American freedom. Harvard University Press.

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"Traffic Stops, Searches, and Seizures." Premium Papers, 30 Oct. 2022,


Premium Papers. (2022) 'Traffic Stops, Searches, and Seizures'. 30 October.


Premium Papers. 2022. "Traffic Stops, Searches, and Seizures." October 30, 2022.

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Premium Papers. "Traffic Stops, Searches, and Seizures." October 30, 2022.