J. Patrick Quillian, P.C.

J. Patrick Quillian Attorney At Law

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Can He Pull Me Over? Understanding a Legal Traffic Stop

Some criminal charges are the result of a months-long investigation. Others happen after a victim or witness calls 9-1-1 for help or to report a crime. Many, however, happen quickly, simply, and without warning following a routine traffic stop.

If you have been arrested for DUI, drug possession, a firearms offense, or some other crime which began with a traffic stop, the legality of that stop could be instrumental in your defense.

The United States Constitution gives us the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. This means that police must have probable cause to suspect a person of a crime before detaining the person or searching his or her person or vehicle. However, there are certain circumstances that do not require full Fourth Amendment protection, according to the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio. The circumstances referred to in Terry do not require a law enforcement officer to have probable cause for arrest in order to make a temporary detention, such as a “stop and frisk” or a traffic stop, if he or she has “reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity.” In Terry, this “reasonable articulable suspicion” was the result of a police officer witnessing behavior consistent with “casing a job” for a daylight robbery. However, the suspected criminal activity does not have to be nearly so dramatic as a planned stick-up.

A traffic violation is a violation of the law, and therefore, it is technically criminal activity that gives law enforcement the authority to temporarily detain you. A broken taillight, expired tags, or failure to signal before a turn do not seem like “criminal activity,” but because a driver is breaking the law in each of these cases, they are enough for a law officer to conduct a traffic stop.

Remember, though: police must have a “reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity.” They are not legally authorized to stop you with cause. To do so constitutes an illegal traffic stop.

An example of an illegal traffic stop would be if a police officer parked his cruiser next door to a bar and pulled over any driver who left the bar on suspicion of DUI, without witnessing any behavior–stumbling to the car, erratic driving, traffic violations–to give the officer reason to suspect that the driver was, in fact, impaired or under the influence of alcohol. The driver could be a bartender getting off work. He or she could be a designated driver. Simply driving away from a drinking establishment is not enough to give the officer suspicion that a crime is being committed.

Now, if a police officer witnesses a driver weaving across lanes and having difficulty maintaining proper speed, then he or she likely has “reasonable articulable suspicion” of DUI and could legally conduct a traffic stop.

But what if a driver commits only the most minor of traffic infractions, or if the stop is conducted for an issue with the car, such as a faulty headlight or taillight? Does that give him or her the authority to investigate DUI or drug possession?

On its own, no. However, it does give police enough reasonable cause to conduct the traffic stop, and during the stop, the officer may find “reasonable articulable suspicion” of a separate crime. Often, this comes as a result of the officer claiming to detect the odor of alcohol or marijuana. It may come as a result of an officer witnessing the driver or a passenger throw something from the window. The driver may appear unreasonably agitated or nervous. It is here that “reasonable articulable suspicion” can become cloudy, and it is here where it is vitally important that a driver knows his or her rights in a traffic stop. Aside from properly identifying yourself, you do not have to answer any questions or consent to a search of your person or your vehicle. While an officer may be able to search you or your vehicle without a warrant, do not give him or her your consent, which can destroy any legal remedies you have against illegal search and seizure.

Contact your attorney to learn more.

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