Illegal Traffic Stops On Interstate 80
Berry Law, located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska practices criminal defense law throughout the state. One focus of Berry Law’s practice is 4th Amendment violations. One of the most common 4th Amendment violations that occur in Nebraska are interstate drug stops.
Police do not have the authority to stop a vehicle on the interstate without legal justification. In order to conduct a legal traffic stop, police must have probable cause to believe a traffic violation has taken place. This past Monday, Berry Law had two cases that dealt with traffic stops on Interstate 80 that resulted in criminal charges. Both cases involved traffic stops that led to vehicle searches based on police suspicion of criminal activity. The first case occurred in Omaha, Douglas county and involved possession with intent to distribute marijuana, the second case involved a federal marijuana distribution conspiracy based on cash seized on the interstate.
Possession with intent to distribute Omaha, Nebraska:
In this case, police stopped a rental car with California plates for striking one of the traffic lines while driving on the interstate. When the car was later searched police found 30 pounds of high grade marijuana. The driver was charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana and hired Berry Law to defend him against the criminal charges.
Berry Law attorneys filed a motion to suppress the evidence based on a 4th amendment violation for the unlawful traffic stop arguing that all of the evidence seized by police must be suppressed. In support of the argument Berry Law attorneys held a suppression hearing and cross-examined the police officer about the reason for the traffic stop captured on the police cruiser video. Berry Law argued that there was no valid reason for the traffic stop. The Douglas County District Court judge applied the ruling in the Nebraska Supreme Court case of State v. Au, and determined that the traffic stop was illegal and that the marijuana found during the traffic stop was illegally seized and could not be used as evidence in the case. On Monday, the Douglas County Attorney’s office dismissed the case.
Federal marijuana conspiracy Lincoln, Nebraska:
The same Monday, a Berry Law criminal defense attorney was finishing the third day of a hearing on motion to suppress in federal court for a criminal conspiracy based on evidence seized during an interstate traffic stop. In this case a Deputy Lancaster County Sheriff stopped a driver for the alleged traffic violation of following too close. Following to close is a common reason that law enforcement use in Nebraska to stop out of state travelers for criminal interdiction purposes. The problem with using this reason to stop a driver is that the language of the traffic statute gives law enforcement a large amount of discretion.
The law requires that vehicles maintain a “reasonable and prudent” following distance. Law enforcement officers often apply a subjective standard of what is reasonable rather than an objective standard. When reviewing police car video footage it is often clear that several cars could have been pulled over for following too close, but that law enforcement singled out the vehicle with license plates from California, Washington, or Oregon. The reason for the stop usually has to do more with interstate drug interdiction than the alleged traffic violation.
If the court finds the traffic stop is valid, the next issue is whether police detention of the driver was based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or whether the detention was unlawful.
The first place the criminal defense attorney focuses his effort is on whether the stop was illegal. If the stop was illegal, any other evidence obtained during the traffic stop is excluded. The federal hearing on Monday has not yet resulted in a court ruling. Interestingly, when Berry Law was researching the stop, it found that the Deputy who conducted the traffic stop had stopped several other out of state drivers for following too close and subsequently searched their cars for marijuana or large sums of cash.