It is common for law enforcement to post signs along Interstate 80 warning of drug dog searches miles ahead. Thousands of cars travel along the Interstate daily, making it nearly impossible for law enforcement to search every car for drugs. Travelers nervous about the potential search may see the sign and pull off of the Interstate, where there will be an officer waiting to pull over cars that make any minor traffic violation.
A case involving one of these stops occurred just 45 minutes outside of Lincoln. In United States v. Adler, a defendant exited the Interstate after seeing a warning sign of drug dog searches. Soon thereafter, the defendant was pulled over for failing to signal a turn 100 feet prior to initiating the turn. After denying the officer permission to search the car, drug dogs were called and indicated narcotics present, leading to the discovery of 470 pounds of marijuana. The legal question presented is whether the officer had probable cause to pull the car over in the first place.
Determining probable cause to pull over
Under Nebraska Revised Statutes § 60-6, 161(2), “A signal of intention to turn or move right or left when required shall be given continuously during not less than the last one hundred feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.”
In federal district court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress on the grounds that the officer had no probable cause to pull the car over. This argument was based on the language “when required” in the statute above. The defendant argued that the car was not required to signal before the turn because it had come to a complete stop before signaling and turning, and that a signal 100 feet prior was not required in such situations. The district court ultimately ruled in favor of the defendant, citing the Nebraska Driver’s Manual as grounds for declaring the statute only requires the use of a signal when drivers change the course of a moving vehicle.
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The case was appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. There, the Court rejected the district court’s analysis, noting that the suggested interpretation would render the law void for vagueness. The Court of Appeals believed the district court’s interpretation of the law would create an entire class of exceptions under the “when required” language, and the public would lack fair notice as to when signaling was required. Such an interpretation, the Court held, would be unconstitutional. Thus, according to the Court of Appeals, the only plausible reading is that all turns require 100 feet of signaling beforehand.
While the holding from this case is binding only on federal courts of the 8th Circuit, Nebraska state courts may find it persuasive when ruling on this issue in the future. An argument can still be made that it is excessive to require all turns to be signaled at least 100 feet in advance. There are numerous situations where this is not possible or practical, such as merging a parallel parked car into traffic or cresting a hill with an unknown stop on the other side. Under Adler, these too would be violations of the law.
Fighting the charges
Fortunately, most Nebraska troopers and deputies that patrol Interstate 80 have dash cams that record traffic stops and vehicle searches. Criminal defense attorneys get access to the videos and will be able to assess whether police had adequate probable cause to believe the driver committed a traffic violation. In court, the criminal attorney can argue the stop was illegal and all evidence (ex: marijuana) obtained during the illegal stop must be thrown out. If the criminal attorney wins on this issue the case is often dismissed.
If you were illegally stopped on the Interstate, contact the relentless criminal defense attorneys at Berry Law.