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Whenever someone is stopped by police because of a traffic violation or a regular check, does the police officer have the right to demand car documents and proof of insurance without a search warrant?

Please note that the question is about the car documents or anything other than the occupant's identification (which any officer has the right to demand).

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As has already been said, as far as the vehicle registration, the officer likely already knows who the vehicle is registered to and whether it's expired or not before he walks up to your car, or at the least, he can easily find that information out.

The proof of insurance is a different matter. The officer will need to see it to know if you have insurance or not. To him, it doesn't matter what the reason is that you don't provide it to him. Left it at home, misplaced it, lost it, destroyed it, or just refuse to provide it because you feel you have the right to refuse. He can't "force" you to provide it (unless he is able to search your car and happens to find it there). He can only issue you a ticket for not providing it.

But your attitude could play a part in what happens next. Being upfront and letting the officer know you have left your documents at home could help your situation.

In my experience... one time that this sort of thing happened to me, the officer agreed to hold my drivers license and allowed me to bring the documents to the police station and retrieve my license.

Another time, in a parking related matter, I was issued a ticket, but I was allowed to bring the required documents to the police station where they then "invalidated" (cancelled) the ticket.

Of course this won't always work, and is not at all likely to work if you are far from home.

Keep in mind, (as far as I know, in most states) the real infraction is that you "don't have insurance"... that you failed to provide proof when asked, is secondary. In many cases (likely nearly all cases), if you show up in court and provide documents that your insurance is current, and was current at the time the ticket was issued, the judge (or the prosecutor) will likely dismiss the case with no penalties. But, what the officer has written down on the ticket about your attitude and what you told him at the time, may have an effect on how this all plays out.

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First, police need probable cause to stop a vehicle. Something like a safety violation with the vehicle, or some type of moving violation. The specifics for a stop vary state to state.

Secondly, police have the right to ask for the driver's ID, Registration and in some states insurance. All the other passengers have no legal requirement to produce ID.

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    @gabrieldiegob The fourth amendment is not really relevant at all here. The officer is not searching or seizing anything. They're asking you to prove your identity and registration of the car. – animuson May 30 '15 at 21:13
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    @gabrieldiego You might think that, but that's not how the law works. Asking for registration and proof of insurance in an otherwise justified traffic stop is considered reasonable. – cpast May 30 '15 at 21:39
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    @gabrieldiego They're still not seizing anything, though. In my experience, most officers will only even take your ID back to their car. They just look at the registration and insurance to make sure you have them and then hand them back to you immediately. Officers can easily find that information in their computer system and probably already know if your registration is expired or not before getting to your car. – animuson May 30 '15 at 21:42
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    @gabrieldiego: Your interpretation would seem to also mean that, e.g., government agents could not ask to see business licenses, health code inspection certifications, building permits, or various other sorts of documents. There would be no point in requiring permits or licenses for anything if there was no way to verify them by requiring that people show the licenses when needed. – BrenBarn Jun 2 '15 at 18:00
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    @animuson the supreme court disagrees. The vehicle and its occupants are in fact seized. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brendlin_v._California. – phoog Mar 28 '17 at 13:31
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The police are allowed to ask for such things because of what is know as police power. Generally speaking, states are allowed to regulate behavior within their borders. They regulate and enforce the behavior through laws. So the laws in the states allow cops to ask for certain things. The tradition has its roots in the 10th Amendment which states that powers not given to the Federal Government are held by the states. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state laws that encroach on personal liberty (Jacobson v. Massachusetts) in order to maintain public order.

As has been mentioned, the request for certain information is provided by state law and is reasonable so the Supreme Court lets states police themselves.

  • Thanks for your answer, it is very informative. Yet is it constitutional that the driver would have to confess that he/she is not carrying those mandatory papers when they were forgotten at home, for example? Would it be wiser (and legal) to not handle any paper (except the driver's license), do not explain why and hold to the fourth and fifth amendments rights? – Gabriel Diego May 31 '15 at 3:14
  • You need to understand the specifics of the law of the state but if you do not provide the documents you'll be hit with the statutory penalty which is typically a misdemeanor. In your hypothetical the two choices both lead to the same legal result - you do not provide the documents and you are given a ticket for violating the law that says you must provide the documents. Whether one excuse is wiser than the other is a matter of personal opinion. – jqning May 31 '15 at 3:35
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It is not about needing to know. In most states LE has access to insurance information, and the production of an insurance document is redundant. However, as an example, in New York, failing to produce the insurance document (card) is punishable with up to 15 days in jail, a fine of up to $1500 and a civil penalty of $750. Production of the insurance document is INDEPENDENT of whether the car is actually insured or not.

When you are detained (seized even) in a traffic stop, most likely the LEO is "regulating traffic" and can request these documents by asking you. You are presumed to be operating in traffic, and therefore your compliance is required.

Current registration is also in a database which is often available in the patrol car. Many cars have their database updated daily, and if one's registration was revoked or suspended that would be available to the LEO within 24 hours. However in most states the requirement to produce a registration document still exists, and if the LEO so chooses they can cite you for failing to produce the document, even though they know that the registration is valid.

So in short, a traffic stop is done under the presumption that you are engaging in a regulated activity, which is called "traffic" or "motor vehicle traffic" and that you are subject to the regulations which apply to that regulated activity. That includes production of insurance, registration and driver license documents, and could include other documents. Failure to provide those documents makes one subject to consequences under the regulations, statutes, codes and perhaps even policy.

  • I'm still confused that a person can be indirectly forced to confess not having the so said insurance card. It sounds the same as if someone is suspicious of a crime and does not confess to it or provide their defense can receive a penalty. In short forcing someone to provide a document under penalty if not providing it is the same as forcing someone to provide a statement. – Gabriel Diego Jan 26 at 16:24
  • It is not a confession. It is the production of a document which a driver has the responsibility to have on hand prior to driving a motor vehicle. You are not forced to make a statement, just produce the document. If asked why you do not have the document, you can remain silent. You may get a ticket. However, if you checked for the document prior to driving, as it is required to have the document, then there would not be anything to "confess" to. – mongo Jan 26 at 20:55

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