10 Common Questions About Traffic Stops in Tennessee

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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Police officer conducting traffic stop

Whether you’re winding through the Smoky Mountains or navigating downtown Knoxville, being pulled over by law enforcement can be an unexpected and startling event. Knowing your rights and obligations during these encounters is essential. In this blog post, we’ll address ten common questions about traffic stops in Tennessee, offering insights and guidance that can empower you in these situations.

1. Can Police Run My Tags Without Probable Cause?

Yes, police officers in Tennessee, and across the United States, have the authority to run your license plates without probable cause. This action can be part of a routine traffic stop or even while an officer is patrolling. They don’t need specific reasons to check the information connected to your vehicle’s tags.

Today, many police departments utilize Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems. These advanced technological tools can scan and process many license plates in a short amount of time, checking against various databases for infractions, warrants, or stolen vehicle reports. ALPR systems are often mounted on police vehicles or stationary objects like road signs and bridges, aiding in law enforcement efforts.

Running a license plate, whether manually or through ALPR, allows officers to access various details, such as registration status, owner information, or any potential alerts connected to the vehicle. This information may help them assess whether there are legal issues concerning the car or its owner.

While some may find this practice intrusive, courts generally regard this as a lawful exercise of police duties, balancing the state’s interest in regulating roads and public safety against individual privacy concerns. However, an officer cannot pull you over solely based on personal dislike or discriminatory reasons; they must observe a violation of the law or have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

2. Do You Have To Roll Your Windows Down For The Police?

In Tennessee, during a traffic stop, you are generally required to roll your window down enough to communicate with the officer and hand over necessary documents such as your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. However, it’s advisable to roll your window down all the way as a sign of cooperation and good faith.

Rolling your window all the way down helps facilitate clear communication and demonstrates to the officer that you are willing to comply with their requests. While it’s not a legal requirement to roll it down completely, doing so can foster a more positive interaction. In interacting with officers, it is always important to be polite, respectful and cooperative. The next question will address your compliance in more detail and what you should or should not tell the officer. 

Of course, every situation can be unique, and personal comfort or specific circumstances might influence your decision. Officers prioritize their safety and that of others during traffic stops, so following their instructions and showing willingness to cooperate is usually in your best interest.

3. What Information Are You Legally Required to Provide During a Traffic Stop?

During a traffic stop in Tennessee, you must provide specific information to comply with the law. This includes your driver’s license, which confirms your identity and legal driving status, your vehicle registration (which verifies the vehicle’s lawful possession), and proof of insurance to confirm that the vehicle is insured in accordance with state regulations.

While these are the primary documents you must present, it’s essential to understand that an officer may ask additional questions related to the stop. These might include inquiries about where you’re going, whether you know why you were pulled over, or if you have anything illegal in the car. Legally, you are not obligated to answer these additional questions, and you have the right to remain silent beyond providing the required documents.

However, being polite and cooperative without volunteering unnecessary information can often lead to a more positive interaction. If you choose not to answer certain questions, calmly stating that you prefer not to answer can be a respectful way to assert your rights.

In being cooperative, we simply recommend listening to all lawful commands of the officer. As such, comply with officers’ request for your license, registration, proof of insurance and any requests to get out of the vehicle. On the other hand, you do not have to answer questions about what you were doing before you were pulled over, complete standardized field sobriety testing or provide a blood or breath sample. You can be respectful and cooperative in a way that helps your case without hurting it by giving the officer more information than necessary to complete a routine traffic stop.

4. Is It Legal To Record The Police During A Traffic Stop?

In Tennessee, civilians have the legal right to record police officers during a traffic stop, thanks to protections under the First Amendment. This provision ensures the public’s ability to document the actions of public officials, especially when they’re performing their official duties.

If you choose to record, it’s always a good practice to inform the officer. While it’s not a strict legal requirement to do so, making the officer aware can set a cooperative tone for the interaction. However, it’s essential to be prepared for varied reactions. Some officers might view the act of recording with suspicion or concern. By being courteous and clear about your intentions, you can often navigate these situations more smoothly and ensure a more positive interaction for both parties.

However, as you record, be mindful not to interfere with the officer’s duties. Your actions, including how you hold or manipulate your recording device, should not obstruct, or hinder the traffic stop process. While the act of recording is protected, causing any hindrance could potentially lead to complications.

It is worth noting that many police departments in Tennessee equip their officers with body cams or dash cams. These devices continuously record interactions, including traffic stops. Such official recordings can serve as invaluable evidence in legal proceedings and, if needed, can be accessed with the help of a criminal defense lawyer. This is why it is generally a better idea not to record the officer because recording the officer will generally only result in the officer being more frustrated and difficult with you.

5. Should You Tell A Cop If You’ve Been Drinking?

While you should generally cooperate with law enforcement, admitting that you’ve been drinking clearly indicates to the officer that they should proceed with further investigation. Essentially, this admission can act as a “smoking gun,” simplifying the officer’s job in establishing a basis for suspecting impairment. Breathalyzers, field sobriety tests, and other evaluations might follow.

It’s essential to remember that you possess the right to remain silent. You’re under no obligation to confirm alcohol consumption or respond to potentially self-incriminating questions. While honesty is often the best policy, in this context, it may unintentionally supply evidence that could be used against you.

6. What Are Your Rights When Asked to Exit the Vehicle?

During a traffic stop, it is possible for drivers to be asked to step out of their vehicle. The legal backing for this directive can be traced back to the 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case Pennsylvania v. Mimms. In this decision, the Court established that officers have the right to ask drivers to exit their vehicles following a lawful stop. They based this on the premise that the minor inconvenience to the driver is outweighed by the significant safety considerations for the officer.

When faced with such a request during a traffic stop in Tennessee, it’s important to understand your rights. Additionally, it is essential for drivers to respond calmly, avoiding any sudden actions. This cooperation not only ensures the situation remains as controlled as possible but also helps establish a rapport with the officer.

However, just because you’ve exited your vehicle does not mean you’ve surrendered any rights. You retain the right to remain silent and are not obligated to provide self-incriminating information. Moreover, this action in itself doesn’t automatically give officers the authority to search your vehicle. For a search to be conducted, officers would still require your explicit consent, a warrant, or a valid probable cause.

If there’s any uncertainty or you’re unclear about aspects of the traffic stop, especially the reason for being asked to step out, it’s within your rights to seek clarification from the officer in a respectful manner.

7. Can You Refuse A Breathalyzer Test?

In Tennessee, drivers have the right to refuse breathalyzer tests, field sobriety tests, and even blood draws when pulled over under suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI). That being said, there are some consequences to consider.

By obtaining a driver’s license and operating a vehicle in the state, you implicitly consent to chemical tests when suspected of DUI. Refusing these tests can lead to an implied consent charge. It is a common misconception that your driver’s license will automatically be suspended upon receiving an implied consent charge. However, a charge is not a conviction, and you will only receive these penalties if you are found guilty in court.

It is also worth noting that just as admitting to drinking can aid an officer’s suspicion, willingly taking these tests can provide more concrete evidence of intoxication that can be used against you in court. Among other reasons, it is crucial to have an experienced DUI attorney that can identify legal issues that could potentially have your implied consent charge dismissed. 

Our general advice is in most circumstances it will do you more harm than good to provide a breath or blood sample. Refusing the sample will provide the State with less evidence to actually convict you of DUI.

8. Can Police Search My Car Without A Warrant?

While the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, there are conditions under which officers might search a vehicle without a warrant.

If you, as the driver, provide explicit permission for a search, then the police can proceed without any warrant in hand. It’s pivotal to recognize your right to decline such a request in the absence of a warrant. If you’ve already given consent, any subsequently discovered evidence is likely admissible in court.

One scenario that would allow for a warrantless search involves the “plain view doctrine.” If an officer sees something illegal or incriminating in your vehicle, such as drug paraphernalia resting on a seat, they have the right to conduct a search based on that observation alone.

The concept of probable cause plays a central role in warrantless searches. If an officer has a genuine, reasonable belief rooted in observable facts that your vehicle contains evidence of a crime, they can conduct a thorough search. This could be driven by factors such as a noticeable scent of marijuana, which would give them grounds to inspect the entirety of the car, including areas like the trunk and glove compartment.

Furthermore, if an arrest occurs during a traffic stop, officers have the authority to search your vehicle. This is termed a “search incident to arrest” and is designed to ensure the safety of law enforcement officers and prevent the potential destruction of evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also acknowledged the “vehicle exception.” Due to the mobility of cars and the diminished expectation of privacy within them, if officers have probable cause to believe your car contains evidence of a crime, they can search it without a warrant.

The most common search in a DUI case is an “inventory search.” An inventory search means the officer will “inventory” everything in your vehicle to prevent any claims of lost or stolen property when the police took possession of the vehicle and requested a tow truck company to tow your vehicle to the impound lot. While this is the most common search in a DUI case, it is also the most common suppression issue we see in DUI cases because officers routinely fail to inform the arrestee that they have the right to make their own arrangements for the vehicle to be moved. Of course, if the arrestee makes their own arrangements for the vehicle to be moved, the officer has no right to search the vehicle. Yet, officers routinely forget to provide the opportunity to arrestee’s causing anything they find in the vehicle to be subject to suppression as an illegal search. This is based on a Tennessee Supreme Court case called State v. Drinkard explaining that an officer cannot use an inventory search to get around the search warrant requirement until it is necessary to tow the vehicle because the vehicle cannot be lawfully be left at its location of the traffic stop

9. Is The Smell Of Marijuana Probable Cause For Search?

In Tennessee, the answer to the question is currently “yes.” Despite recent changes in the legal landscape surrounding cannabis, the smell of marijuana is still considered probable cause for a vehicle search in the state. The issue has become contentious, especially after the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalized cannabis products containing less than 0.3% THC. This blurred the lines for law enforcement officers, as the aroma of legal hemp and illegal marijuana is indistinguishable.

The “plain smell” doctrine in Tennessee, which historically justified warrantless vehicle searches based on certain odors, is now under increased scrutiny. However, the State v. Hampton case in September 2022 clarified the position. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that despite the challenges posed by hemp legalization, the scent of marijuana remains a valid reason for a vehicle search, referencing the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.

The appellate court indicated that future decisions by the Tennessee Supreme Court or legislative changes could alter their stance. With the rapidly changing landscape of cannabis laws in Tennessee, it’s imperative for residents to stay informed about their rights and the nuances in legislation.

10. Should You Tell Police If You Have A Gun In Your Car?

In Tennessee, a state with strong support for Second Amendment rights, many individuals legally carry firearms in their vehicles. If you anticipate a search of your vehicle and have a firearm inside, it could be wise to proactively inform the officer. While Tennessee law doesn’t require you to disclose the presence of a firearm during a traffic stop, such transparency can potentially reduce tensions. An officer discovering a gun without prior knowledge might perceive it as a threat, leading to an escalated situation.

Further, if you’re carrying the firearm in compliance with Tennessee’s gun laws, being upfront can perhaps work to your advantage, especially if you’re anticipating a criminal charge. Demonstrating such cooperation might be favorably viewed during potential legal proceedings. Officers often value clear communication, considering it a sign of cooperation and intent to comply.

However, if you choose to disclose the firearm’s presence, it’s imperative to meticulously follow the officer’s directions. Refrain from sudden movements or reaching towards the firearm unless expressly instructed. Both your safety and the officer’s are paramount.

Ensure Your Legal Journey With Barnes & Fersten

Understanding the legal aspects of traffic stops in Tennessee is the first step towards a safer and more informed driving experience. We trust this guide has shed light on some of your most pressing questions. If you ever find yourself facing legal charges in Tennessee, the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Barnes & Fersten are here to guide you every step of the way. Contact us today for a free consultation.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.