The Constitution of the United States protects Americans against unwarranted attention from law enforcement. Police in this country cannot detain and search someone who is lawfully minding his or her own business. The same goes for stopping motorists without probable cause to do so. If you believe that you have been profiled or unlawfully pulled over without cause, contact the attorneys at Berry Law. They can advise you of your rights and offer suggestions on how to move forward.
Probable cause for stopping a vehicle is defined as an officer having reason to believe that a crime or traffic violation has been committed, or that the driver is hiding evidence of a crime inside of the vehicle. Common examples include minor traffic infractions like a broken taillight, speeding, or failure to observe stop signs and traffic signals. Likewise, driving without a license plate or with an expired registration sticker gives law enforcement officers reasonable cause to stop a vehicle.
Typically when an officer makes a traffic stop, he or she genuinely believes that they have probable cause to do so, but these are judgement calls at best and can be subject to an officer’s personal beliefs and own past experiences. Unlawful stops occur when a driver is pulled over by law enforcement without sufficient evidence that a crime or traffic violation has occurred. If a traffic violation does not occur, police cannot lawfully force a driver to pull over and interact with them. Vehicle profiling, baiting, pretextual stops, and responding to anonymous tips are some examples of unlawful traffic stops. In many cases, courts have ruled that these types of stops violate the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure.
When law enforcement chooses particular vehicles or drivers to target for traffic stops without probable cause, it’s called profiling. Profiling of any kind is against a motorist’s Constitutional rights. Acting off of hunches or suspicion does not meet the standard that courts have set for reasonable cause to stop a vehicle. For example, officers cannot lawfully pull a vehicle over without reasonable cause simply because the driver is traveling late at night. Driving at night does not by itself justify being pulled over by law enforcement. Likewise, 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.
Police also can’t target a vehicle simply because the driver has a criminal record. While it is legal for law enforcement to run a driver’s plates while they are driving, unless a traffic violation occurs, police cannot pull a driver over based solely on their criminal history. The exception would be if a driver is on parole or probation.
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In some cases, law enforcement sets up surveillance in an attempt to catch illegal activity without a specific suspect in mind. This occurs 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. Leaving a particular establishment doesn’t provide law enforcement reasonable cause to stop a driver under suspicion of DUI unless they also witness erratic driving, sudden braking, speeding, driving without headlights, drifting between lanes, or other violations.
Defendants have won cases in court in which police set up surveillance outside of what they believed to be a drug house. When the defendant exited the property and began to lawfully drive away, they were stopped and searched. Any evidence found during such stops was thrown out because the court ruled that the stop itself violated the defendant’s Constitutional rights.
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.
Following a routine traffic stop, police are given the latitude to investigate other types of illegal activity they may observe if they have reasonable cause. Examples could include seeing drugs, paraphernalia, or weapons, or smelling alcohol or drugs in the vehicle. Referred to as extending the scope of the stop, evidence found during this period of the investigation could later be thrown out if a court finds that the initial traffic stop was unwarranted. Without evidence to prove its case, the prosecutor may be forced to drop the charges.
Anonymous tips that claim a driver is involved in criminal activity cannot in general be used to establish reasonable cause 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 lawful reason to stop the driver.
There are some exceptions to officers requiring probable cause before stopping a vehicle. These include immigration and DUI checkpoints. In many states, DUI checkpoints must be published ahead of time and made available for the public’s knowledge. 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.
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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 eat or drink. Drivers who have been pulled over have a constitutional right to remain silent. Lying to a government official is a crime, but remaining silent until an attorney can be consulted is not. 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 go. 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. Also known as roadside sobriety tests, field sobriety tests are often used 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. Reports from a field sobriety test are admissible in court, even though there are certain medical conditions or disabilities that can influence the reliability of results. Some courts have ruled that field sobriety tests are altogether unreliable since the age of the driver, injuries, certain medications, or even wearing contacts can impact their reliability.
- 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’s often because the officer doesn’t have reasonable cause to conduct a search otherwise. 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 that was either unknown to the driver or forgotten over time.
- Carefully consider options- While it is the right of a driver who has been stopped to refuse to take a breath or blood test, they should know that doing so can result in the loss of driver’s license for a year. If law enforcement has probable cause to believe that a driver is operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they can simply obtain a warrant for a DUI blood test anyway.
- 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 or battery of an officer, which will only 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 legal counsel. Drivers can also file a report with the officer’s law enforcement agency.
Contact an Attorney Right Away
As soon as possible following an unlawful traffic stop, contact an attorney who can review the situation. An experienced litigator 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.