Joseph J. Colarusso, Attorney at Law
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Terry stops and drug charges

Someone is arrested on drug charges every 20 seconds in the United States. Many times, both in Connecticut and elsewhere, their civil liberties are violated due to illegal stops and/or illegal searches and seizures. Often this happens as the result of an improper Terry stop.

The Legal Information Institute explains that a Terry stop is another name for a stop and frisk by a police officer who has reasonable suspicion to believe that the person is armed or engaged, or about to be, in criminal activity. It is called a Terry stop because this power was granted to police officers by means of Terry v. Ohio, the landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Terry stops are seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

As reported in The Washington Post, the Supreme Court handed down another decision in 2015, Rodriguez v. United States, that declared that the Fourth Amendment precludes police officers from extending the duration of routine traffic stops so that drug-sniffing dogs can be called in to check for drugs in the vehicle. In reaching its decision, the Court differentiated between the mission of a traffic stop – to address the traffic infraction – and the mission of a Terry stop; i.e., to investigate suspicion of a crime.

What this means for Connecticut drivers is that if they are pulled over for speeding, a faulty tail light, or any other traffic violation, the traffic stop can last only as long as necessary for the officer to check the driver license, registration, proof of insurance, if any outstanding warrants exist, and then write the ticket(s). Any seizure, including the arrest of the driver, is authorized only if it is directly related to the traffic stop itself.

A traffic stop is not a Terry stop. Anything having to do with drugs or any other matter unrelated to the reason for a traffic stop is outside its scope and prohibited. This includes an officer asking questions about drugs or asking to search the vehicle. While drivers should never “mouth off” to police officers, they nevertheless should respectfully decline to answer any such questions and should not consent to a vehicle search.

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