The Constitution of the United States protects Americans against unwarranted searches and seizures by law enforcement. Police in this country cannot detain and search someone if they do not have reasonable suspicion a crime is, has, or will be committed. If you believe that you have been profiled or unlawfully pulled over without cause, contact the attorneys at Berry Law.
To conduct a traffic stop, law enforcement must have probable cause a crime, often minor traffic offenses, has been committed. Common examples include traffic infractions like a broken taillight, speeding, or failure to observe stop signs and traffic signals.
To conduct a traffic stop, law enforcement must have observed a traffic violation or have reasonable articulable suspicion criminal activity is afoot. When law enforcement conducts a traffic stop based on the type of vehicle or the driver or passengers of the car, the stop may be considered a profiled stop. Profiling is against a motorist’s Constitutional rights. Hunches or suspicion that a crime is being committed is insufficient to conduct a traffic stop. For example, driving a high-dollar vehicle through a particular area of town does not give police justification to pull the driver over unless a traffic violation occurs.
In some cases, law enforcement set up surveillance in an attempt to catch illegal activity without a specific suspect in mind. This can occur when law enforcement waits outside of bars, clubs or restaurants for patrons to exit. Once they pull away from the establishment, police conduct a traffic stop, seeking evidence that the driver is operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Merely leaving a particular establishment doesn’t provide law enforcement probable cause to stop a driver under suspicion of DUI unless they also witness the driver commit a traffic violation or have a particularized and objective basis that the driver is under the influence.
When police pull a vehicle over for a minor traffic violation with the intention of looking for drugs or other illegal activity, this is known as a pretextual stop. The officer has some pretext for stopping the vehicle other than the traffic violation. Pretextual stops have become increasingly common along Interstate 80 in Nebraska where law enforcement is on heightened alert for cases of interstate drug trafficking. Interstate drug stops often start as a routine traffic violation and spiral into more serious investigations with potential state or federal charges filed.
After a routine traffic stop, police may expand the scope of the traffic stop from investigating the traffic violation to investigating a more serious crime, like drug trafficking, if law enforcement have reasonable suspicion that driver and/or passengers are involved in something more than committing a traffic violation. Examples could include seeing drugs, paraphernalia, or weapons, or smelling alcohol or drugs in the vehicle. If law enforcement expand the scope of the traffic stop when they do not have a reasonable basis, it is possible that evidence found during this period of the investigation could later be thrown out if a court finds that the office did not have an objective basis for thinking there was a more serious crime occurring.
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Generally, anonymous tips that claim a driver is involved in criminal activity cannot be used to establish reasonable suspicion criminal activity is occurring for pulling them over. Without knowledge as to the credibility of the tip provider or specific details as to the nature of the crime, police must have a different and lawful reason to stop the driver.
There are some exceptions to officers requiring probable cause before stopping a vehicle. These may include immigration and DUI checkpoints. In situations where a fugitive from justice is on the loose, police may legally set up roadblocks and stop vehicles in their search for a specific criminal.
What To Do If You’re Stopped
A driver who feels he or she has been wrongfully pulled over should remain calm and behave respectfully toward law enforcement. While the driver may disagree over the reason for the stop, it’s best to save debates and arguments for later when an attorney can help determine whether or not the stop was lawful.
- Keep hands in sight- The driver should place his or her hands on the steering wheel in plain sight where the officer can see them and avoid making sudden movements.
- Provide documentation- Cooperate by providing license and registration. If documents are stored in areas that will require the driver to reach for them, such as the glovebox, tell the officer your intentions before proceeding.
- Keep conversation minimal- A motorist who has been stopped by law enforcement is not required to give any information about where they’ve been, where they’re headed, or what they’ve had to drink. Drivers who have been pulled over have a constitutional right to remain silent. Passengers in a vehicle that has been pulled over also have this right, as well as the right to ask an officer if they are free to leave. Asking to do so alerts the officer that a passenger’s continued presence is not consensual if they are instructed to stay.
- Decline field sobriety tests- DUI field sobriety tests are not mandatory, and a driver has the right to decline to participate in them. Field sobriety tests are often requested by an officer before a Breathalyzer is given to determine whether or not a driver is impaired. These tests assess a motorist’s balance, coordination, and attention. An officer’s observation during field sobriety tests are generally admissible in court.
- Decline a vehicle search- Motorists have the right to refuse voluntary searches of their vehicles or possessions if they haven’t been arrested. When an officer asks a driver for consent to search his or her vehicle, it may be because the officer doesn’t have probable cause to conduct a search. Sometimes drivers believe that they’re putting themselves in a better position by cooperating with an officer’s request to search their vehicle, but agreement to a voluntary search can backfire if officers find evidence of a crime.
- Carefully consider options- While a driver can refuse to take a breath or blood test, there are additional consequences that may occur. In Nebraska, refusal of a chemical breath test can lead to additional charges and loss of driver’s license for a significant period of time.
- Cooperate if arrested- In cases where a driver is arrested following a routine traffic stop, they should cooperate with police. Doing otherwise can result in additional charges, such as resisting arrest, which may complicate a potential case later.
If a driver has reason to believe that he or she has been profiled for a stop due to his or her race or for other factors, they should politely ask for the officer’s badge number. It’s important to keep copies of any documents related to a traffic stop, search, or arrest so they can be reviewed by an attorney.
Contact an Attorney Right Away
It is important to contact an attorney who can review your situation and help determine whether the traffic stop was unconstitutional. An experienced attorney may be able to file a motion to have any evidence found during an unlawful traffic stop suppressed. The attorneys at Berry Law will fight alongside you to defend your Constitutional rights.