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During traffic stops, why do the police ask for your vehicle registration and insurance?

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by: Ryan • July 13, 2011 • 2 comments

Before you answer the question that makes up the title of this post, note that the question is not, "Why do the police want to know if your car is registered and insured?"

What's the difference? The difference is that by the time the officer reaches your window, he or she already knows whether your car is properly registered and insured. Those on-board computers aren't just for random license plate checks. Whatever reason the officer may have had for asking you for that information 10 or 20 or 40 years ago, that reason doesn't exist now.

(I'm going to leave aside the question of why the information is relevant regardless. Is insurance information necessary for filling out a traffic citation? Sure, he'd want to know if I didn't have insurance - assuming he didn't already know - but he'd presumably want to know if I was having sex with a minor or if I'd killed anyone, and they don't usually ask those questions. Not me, anyway.)

Alright, if you're like me, providing the vehicle registration is an irritant, since it's in a glove compartment filled with all the mapquest directions I've ever printed out. (Or it was, in the days before dashboard GPS.) But beyond being an irritant, does it matter? Is the cop just wasting his time as much as mine?

Good question. Here's what you should know about Oregon law (police officers certainly do):

Police violate a motorist's Article I, section 9, right against unreasonable seizure by extending the temporal duration of a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to complete the stop. State v. Gomes, 236 Or App 364, 371, 236 P3d 841 (2010); State v. Amaya, 176 Or App 35, 44, 29 P3d 1177 (2001), affirmed onother grounds, 336 Or 616, 89 P3d 1163 (2004).

The unlawful temporal extension of a traffic stop can occur in one of two ways: (1) if the officer concludes a lawful stop but "initiates a second stop by questioning the person about unrelated matters," or (2) if the officer detains the person beyond the time reasonably required to investigate the traffic stop and issue a citation without "letting the person know expressly or by implication that he or she is free to go [.]" State v. Hendon, 222 Or App 97, 103, 194 P3d 149 (2008).

An officer may question a motorist about matters unrelated to the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion only during "unavoidable lulls" during the stop:

"[A]lthough an officer is free to question a motorist about matters unrelated to the traffic infraction during an unavoidable lull in the investigation, such as while awaiting the results of a records check, that officer is not similarly free to question the motorist about unrelated matters as an alternative to going forward with the next step in processing the infraction, such as the writing or issuing of a citation." State v. Rodgers, 219 Or App 366, 372, 182 P3d 209 (2008).

With that in mind, the officers are now being trained to ask you about drugs - or seek permission to search your car - during "unavoidable lulls," such as the time you spend digging out that vehicle registration or insurance card from the glove box. But if the request for those items - and thus the search for them - is not necessary to the traffic stop (because the officer already knows if your car is insured and registered), then questions about drugs that occur during that time have not occurred during an unavoidable lull. Rather, the lull is quite avoidable. And if the lull is unnecessary, then the stop has been lengthened for reasons unrelated to the traffic stop, and the questions about drugs or the request to search your car violate Article I, section 9, of the Oregon Constitution.

Which means you have a chance at suppression of any evidence resulting from your consent to search. Of course, you can save yourself by not consenting to the search in the first place. But if you do that, you won't have any reason to hire me.

Ryan Scott is a partner in Scott & Huggins. He has recently been declared a 2011 SuperLawyer.