It starts with a traffic stop.
The police officer, sheriff, or Virginia State Trooper pulls you over for a traffic offense, such as speeding. You are waiting on the side of the road when the officer asks for permission to search your car, too. Then, he starts asking unrelated questions. Whether you have drugs in the car, or stolen merchandise, or have engaged in other alleged activity.
Can a police officer ask unrelated questions during a traffic stop?
Yes. An officer may ask questions unrelated to a traffic violation either during the issuance of the summons or after the issuance of the summons.
(1) Asking About Drugs or Weapons During the Issuance of a Summons
While the officer is processing the summons, he may ask questions unrelated to the traffic stop, including for consent to search for weapons or drugs that may be in the vehicle, “so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop.” Arizona v. Johnson, 129 S. Ct. 781, 788 (2009); see also Graves v. Commonwealth, Record No. 1754-09-1, n. 3 (Va. Ct. App. July 13, 2010) (holding that an officer “may request consent to search the vehicle” during “a routine traffic stop” and ask questions “on a subject unrelated to the purpose of the stop” (quoting United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1279-81 (11th Cir. 2001)).
Therefore, it is permissible for an officer to approach a vehicle, request identification, retain it, and begin asking about drugs or weapons in the car, so long as the conversation is brief.
(2) Asking About Drugs or Weapons After the Issuance of a Summons
After an officer has processed a summons, he may continue asking questions about drugs or weapons in the car, so long as the person reasonably feels “free to go.” Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33 (1996) (holding that an officer may ask questions unrelated to the traffic violation, such as permission to search a vehicle for the presence of weapons or drugs, once the traffic stop has concluded if the person reasonably feels “free to go”). The United States Supreme Court has stated that a person should reasonably feel “free to go” if they have possession of their identification and are otherwise not threatened by the presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer’s request might be compelled. See United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980).
Therefore, it is permissible for an officer to approach a vehicle, request identification, issue a warning, return identification, and engage in a consensual conversation so long as the person is “free to leave.”
Do I have to answer the police officer’s questions?
No way! Other than providing valid identification, remember you have a “right to remain silent” and you should wait to speak with an attorney before making any statement.