Traffic stops and Fourth Amendment rights

As you are driving in or out of Wheeling, you may be unfortunate enough to catch the red and blue lights in your rearview mirror. Having a cop pull you over can spark immediate dread, even when you have nothing to feel inherently guilty about.

When you are the subject of a traffic stop, you should know your Constitutional rights. The Fourth Amendment is there to protect you in these unfortunate situations.

What does the Fourth Amendment guarantee you?

You have the right to privacy within your own personal property, including your home and vehicle. The Fourth Amendment prohibits anyone from searching your belongings without probable cause or a warrant, unless you have granted permission. The West Virginia Constitution reiterates this principal right.

Probable cause is not based on a person’s suspicions or opinions alone. If an officer wishes to search your vehicle, he or she must have legitimate evidence to suggest that you may have committed a crime.

When can an officer pull you over? 

In West Virginia, it is legal for police officers to set up DUI checkpoints to evaluate a driver’s sobriety. However, outside of these checkpoints, a cop must have just cause to initiate a traffic stop.

If you are obeying traffic laws, driving within the speed limit and operating your vehicle in a safe, responsible manner, then there is no reason for anyone to ask you to pull over. Should someone stop you without just cause and find signs of a crime in your car, this evidence may be invalid because the officer obtained it illegally.

Does an officer need a warrant to search your vehicle?

Assuming a cop has pulled you over for a reasonable offense, he or she must ask permission to look inside your car. You do not have to say yes. Without a warrant, officers are not able to search your property unless they have observed evidence in plain sight that might implicate you in a crime.

Knowing your Fourth Amendment rights can protect you from unlawful searches and arrests. West Virginia police officers should not violate this freedom when stopping your car on the road.

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