If a Maryland law enforcement officer pulls you over for an alleged traffic violation, (s)he may ask to search your car, supposedly as part of his or her investigation. Never under any circumstances should you give permission to do so. Even though you know you have nothing illegal in it, you have a constitutional right to refuse a warrantless search of your car, and the officer has no right to conduct one.

Keep in mind, however, that one exception applies: the plain view exception. If the officer sees something illegal in your car when looking through its windows, such as empty beer cans or an alcoholic beverage bottle if you are underage or suspicious looking substances or paraphernalia no matter what age you are, then (s)he can search without a warrant.

Traffic stop restrictions

An officer can do only the following four things during a traffic stop:

  1. Ask for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance
  2. Investigate the traffic offense(s) for which (s)he stopped you
  3. Contact his or her dispatcher to see if you have any outstanding warrants
  4. Write the appropriate ticket(s) for your alleged traffic violation(s)

Prolonging the stop

Per longstanding case law, once the officer does those four things, the traffic stop ends and (s)he can do nothing further, such as search for drugs. Why? Because the U.S. Supreme Court held that the only purpose of a traffic stop is to “ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.”

Consequently, an officer cannot turn your traffic stop into a potential drug bust unless (s)he sees drugs in your car or you give him or her permission to search it. Nor can (s)he prolong the traffic stop so as to call in such backup as drug-sniffing dogs. Technically, (s)he cannot even question you about drugs or anything else unrelated to the traffic stop itself. If (s)he does, again you have the constitutional right to politely decline to answer his or her questions.