Expanding a Stop for a Minor Traffic Infraction

Many people throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul have been stopped for minor traffic infractions. Perhaps the driver was going a few miles over the speed limit or drove left of center for a second.

However, there are times when the officer may expand the stop when the only offense was a minor traffic violation.

The expanded investigatory stop is something that has been under a lot of scrutiny, as many of the actions by the officer that occur during these stops are questionable.

As everyone knows, a police officer can stop a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that that vehicle is about to engage or has already engaged in a traffic violation or criminal act. They have to have probable cause because the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizures. If a person’s vehicle is unreasonably searched, then their Constitutional right is violated.

Nonetheless, a police officer is to not expand an investigation on a vehicle if they don’t have probable cause to do so.

For instance, you may have been speeding. The officer pulls you over, asks you how fast you were going, you say you don’t know, and then he proceeds with telling you and either lets you off with a warning or with a ticket in most cases. It is when the officer decides to search your vehicle, pat you down, or do something else not related to the purpose of the stop (speeding) that an expanded investigation is being conducted.

Even asking questions not relevant to the purpose of the stop is considered an expanded investigation and this can make a driver very uncomfortable because they feel as if they are being accused of something when they have done nothing wrong other than speeding. Such questions can include:

  • Reasons for traveling
  • Details of the reason for traveling
  • Whether or not there are large amounts of cash in the car
  • If there are drugs or alcohol in the car (although the defendant does not smell of alcohol, marijuana, or even show signs of being intoxicated)

Unfortunately, law enforcement officers throughout the Twin Cities have been known to ask such questions, believing that they may be able to secure the probable cause they need to conduct an expanded investigation.

The exception is when there is probable cause to have the vehicle seized. When a vehicle is seized, an inventory may be taken. Anything that is found in that inventory could be used as evidence.

In an ordinary traffic stop, the officer is to not go any further than the initial investigation. If it was running a stop sign or stop light or speeding, that is all the further the officer is to conduct their investigation. A question, such as, “do you know why I pulled you over” is an acceptable question. If the officer asks where you are coming from, where you are going, and why, you do not have to answer those questions because they are irrelevant to the reason for the stop. Those questions go beyond the scope of the investigation. At the same time, you can be nice to the officer and provide your driving credentials as requested.