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A traffic stop is a temporary detention of a driver of a vehicle by police to investigate a possible crime or civil infraction. In constitutional law in the United States, a traffic stop is considered to be a subset of the Terry stop; the standard set by the United States Supreme Courtmarker in Terry v. Ohio regarding temporary detentions requires only reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is about to occur.

A stop is usually accomplished through a process known as "pulling over" the suspect's vehicle. Police vehicles (except those used by undercover personnel) traditionally have sirens, loudspeakers, and lightbars that rotate and/or flash. These devices are used by the officer to get the attention of the suspect and to signal that they are expected to move over to the shoulder and stop.

These devices are also typically equipped on other emergency vehicles such as fire trucks and ambulances, and in all cases, such signals and the laws requiring that other vehicles pull to the shoulder allow the emergency vehicles to pass other traffic safely and efficiently when responding to emergency situations. In the case of a traffic stop, the officer pulls the patrol vehicle behind the subject vehicle as it stops instead of proceeding past as he or she would during emergency response.

Depending upon the severity of the crime which the officer believes to have occurred, the officer may arrest the suspect, either by taking him or her to jail, or check for any outstanding warrants before issuing a citation also called a Notice to Appear or summons in some jurisdictions, which is essentially a traffic ticket. In some cases, officers may choose to simply issue a verbal or written warning.

Traffic stops are inherently dangerous for police officers, many of whom patrol and conduct stops alone. Officers typically take steps to protect themselves from passing traffic such as using their own car as a shield and/or approaching the suspect vehicle on the passenger side.

Many states have enacted laws requiring freeway traffic approaching the police vehicle to merge over to the left, leaving an entire lane as a buffer zone for the officer. According to FBImarker statistics, more officers are killed or injured annually during the course of a traffic stop than at any other time excluding vehicle accidents and effecting arrests.

A felony traffic stop occurs when police stop a vehicle in that the driver is already known to be a suspect in a crime (such as an armed robbery, bank robbery, rape, etc). In such a traffic stop police strongly prefer to have as many officers present as possible before effecting the arrest.

During such stops, officers will have their weapons drawn and typically over a loudspeaker announce for the driver to show their hands, step out and face away from the officer, walking backwards towards him. The driver is then taken into custody and the vehicle is typically searched.

Controversy in the United States

In the United States, traffic stops have been criticized for their use in police dragnets to check compliance with laws such as those requiring the use of seat belts or those forbidding the possession of narcotics.

Some people have objected that the tactic violates the United States Constitution; the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, contains a provision against unreasonable search and seizure. Typically police must either have probable cause for a search or get a warrant from a judge specifying a particular individual by name or get a "John Doe warrant" with a specific description.

In Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the police stopping vehicles for no reason other than to check the drivers' licenses and registrations was unconstitutional.

In New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), the United States Supreme court ruled that when a police officer has made a lawful arrest of a driver, he may search the passenger area of the vehicle without obtaining a warrant.

In Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the use of sobriety checkpoints was constitutional.

In Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005), the United States Supreme Court held that the use of a drug-sniffing dog during a routine traffic stop does not unreasonably prolong the length of the stop so as to violate the Fourth Amendment.

In Arizona v. Gant, (2008), the United States Supreme Court ruled that an officer must demonstrate a threat to their safety or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest in order to search a vehicle pursuant to an arrest, distinguishing New York v. Belton.


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