The answer is it depends. It can vary depending on the circumstances surrounding the individual traffic stop. Most of time a traffic stop is considered terminated once a police officer gives the driver back his license and registration. Most drivers though will likely not feel free to leave until the officer says they may do so. In North Carolina courts have ruled in some instances that even where an officer returns this information the seizure is still in place until the officer indicates to the driver he is free to go.

The Supreme Court considered this problem in Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33 (1996) and said that an officer does not have to tell a driver he is free to leave in order to terminate the traffic stop. Instead the Supreme Court advised a totality of the circumstances approach was a better method to determine when a stop has actually been terminated. This means that all of the circumstances surrounding the stop should be considered to decide when it actually ended. North Carolina courts have not clearly stated if giving a driver back his information means the stop has ended. In State v. Kincaid, 147 N.C. App. 94 (2001) the court said the returning the driver’s license and registration is necessary but will not always be a sufficient condition to determine the stop has been terminated. In another North Carolina case the court decided that under the totality of the circumstances approach the driver of a vehicle was not free to leave after being handed back his paperwork partially because the officer never said the driver could leave. State v. Myles, 188 N.C. App. 42 (2008).

The significance of knowing when the stop is ended is that driver is no longer required to interact with the officer. Anything else the officer asks the driver to do is considered to be a consensual encounter. It is usually at this point the officer may ask for consent to search the vehicle and if the driver agrees then the officer may search. This is why it is generally advisable that if an officer ever asks to perform a search to decline to let the officer search and not to answer any questions.