As states around Nebraska, including neighboring Colorado, have legalized the sale and use of marijuana, there has been an increase in out-of-state vehicle stops by law enforcement along Interstate 80. I-80 runs east to west from New York to San Francisco and intersects with Douglas County and the city of Omaha.
Largely due to the country’s patchwork approach to marijuana legislation, it’s legal to possess and use marijuana in some of the states crossed by I-80 but is currently still illegal in Nebraska. As a result, much of the recreational marijuana passing through the state is purchased legally somewhere else, with drivers simply passing through on their way to another destination.
Unfortunately, this has caused vehicles with out-of-state plates to be more frequently profiled and targeted by police for traffic stops along Interstate 80, with some of those stops resulting in marijuana penalties in Nebraska, such as serious felony drug charges. Cars with out-of-state plates are often pulled over under the pretense of a routine traffic violation.
Nebraska police have even gone so far as to set up operations along the Nebraska-Colorado border to stop drivers on the highway coming into the state with legally purchased marijuana, edibles, hash oil, and other THC-laced products. Many of these tactics are not only unethical but are also in direct violation of a motorist’s Fourth Amendment rights.
In This Article
What Should I Do if I Was Stopped for Having Out-of-State Tags on Interstate 80?
Profiling and targeting vehicles with out-of-state tags for the purpose of a drug stop is a violation of your rights. If you have reason to believe that you were unlawfully detained and searched during an illegal traffic stop due to profiling, any evidence found during the stop may be deemed inadmissible in court. And without evidence, your case may even be dismissed.
Facing state or federal drug charges in a state other than your own can be an especially distressing experience filled with fear and uncertainty. But these situations have become increasingly common following traffic stops along Interstate 80.
Whether you’re from Nebraska or from out of state, the Omaha criminal defense team at Berry Law can listen to your story, explain your rights, and protect your interests. The United States Constitution protects Americans from unwarranted searches, and the attorneys at Berry Law have pledged to uphold the Constitution. They will fight to ensure your rights as a citizen.
Why Are Out-of-State Vehicles Being Targeted by Law Enforcement on Interstate 80?
State law enforcement agencies have nicknamed the Interstate 80 corridor that runs through the state of Nebraska the “drug pipeline” due to the number of vehicles that have been found transporting narcotics and other illegal substances for distribution in other states. Police are working to halt the transportation of illegal substances across the state, especially in:
- Perkins County
- Lincoln County
- Dawson County
- Buffalo County
- Hall County
- Polk County
- York County
- Seward County
- Lancaster County
- Douglas County
Police are certainly within their jurisdiction to keep Nebraska’s highways free of those dealing in the drug trade. But many of the defendants they have targeted recently have been carrying marijuana that was purchased in a legal dispensary for personal or medical use at the direction of a physician. In these cases, what would be legal in another state is illegal under Nebraska law.
As more states across the country legalize and decriminalize marijuana, the targeting of out-of-state drivers by Nebraska law enforcement has increased significantly. Nearly all Interstate drug stop cases begin with minor traffic violations, with many of the motorists who have been charged carrying very small amounts of THC for personal use.
In Nebraska, carrying less than an ounce of marijuana is a minor infraction. But the possession of larger quantities of marijuana with intent to deliver, or the possession of hash oil, are felony offenses punishable by up to 50 years in prison.
When Can Police Stop a Vehicle on Interstate 80?
Officers only have the authority to stop a vehicle or to search it or its occupants if they have reasonable cause to do so. They cannot act off suspicion or a hunch because neither meet the standard that the courts have set for reasonable cause. Stopping a vehicle without reasonable cause is an abuse of police power.
Unlawful stops occur when law enforcement pulls a vehicle over without sufficient evidence of a crime or traffic infraction. In other words, police require a reason other than out-of-state tags to conduct a stop. One tactic that is frequently used is stopping vehicles bearing out-of-state plates for minor traffic infractions, such as:
- An improper lane change
- Failure to signal intentions
- A missing or broken taillight
- Running a red light
- Following too closely
- Expired tags
- Failure to maintain the lane
- Impaired or fatigued driving behaviors
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Pretextual Stops vs. License Plate Profiling
In their desire to stop drug trafficking across state lines, police and highway patrol working I-80 have become overly focused on any vehicle they believe might be transporting illegal narcotics or marijuana from out of state. This is especially true for rental vehicles with out-of-state plates. Police are looking for traffic violations to provide them a reason to pull over out-of-state drivers.
These types of stops are often referred to as pretextual stops because they give police a reason to stop a vehicle. Minor traffic violations that wouldn’t receive a second glance for vehicles with Nebraska tags are often used to justify stopping a car from out of state. This is a type of profiling that occurs when law enforcement officers target specific vehicles or drivers to pull over without probable cause.
The United States Supreme Court has upheld the idea that even if police have an ulterior motive for pulling an out-of-state driver over, they can still do so for any minor traffic violation. This often leads to scenarios in which police follow cars with out-of-state tags until the driver commits a violation.
Vehicles with license plates from Colorado, California, Oregon, Arizona, and Washington may receive more police scrutiny on Interstate 80 because there have been instances of individuals transporting illegal drugs for sale using rental vehicles from those states.
What Are My Rights if I Am Stopped?
Once an officer makes the decision to stop a vehicle, he or she can only investigate the reason for the initial traffic stop. This may include asking to see a driver’s license and registration, as well as engaging in conversation. A motorist who is pulled over must provide the requested documents but is not required to answer police questions, including inquiries into:
- Where they’ve been
- Where they’re going
- Whether or not they’ve been drinking
- If there are drugs in the vehicle
After the initial traffic stop, police may attempt to secure consent from a driver to search his or her vehicle. Many people erroneously believe that consenting to a search will prove that they are innocent of any kind of wrongdoing.
However, sometimes, a driver gives consent to search the vehicle, and police find drugs that were left behind by a passenger or someone else previously riding in the vehicle. The possession of illegal substances in these situations was not known to the driver before he or she gave consent for the vehicle to be searched.
Without a driver’s permission, police require either probable cause or a warrant to search a vehicle they’ve pulled over for a routine traffic violation. The only exception is if the driver is charged with a crime in the course of the traffic stop.
Law enforcement can detain the driver to investigate further if an officer becomes suspicious of some other crime being committed during his or her investigation of the original traffic infraction, such as:
- A heavy smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle
- An open container of alcohol in the backseat
- Drug paraphernalia in plain sight
Because they can now argue they had probable cause to do so, this will likely include a search of the vehicle.
Following a routine traffic stop in which the motorist provided the requested documents without further probable cause, the driver is within his or her rights to politely ask the officer if they are free to go. To detain a motorist who is not in police custody without reasonable cause is unlawful.
What if I Believe I’ve Been Unlawfully Detained?
There have been situations where the police have failed to find drugs during a drug stop on Interstate 80 but detained the driver anyway to wait for the arrival of a K-9 unit. The Supreme Court ruled that any delay of a motorist for the arrival of drug-detecting dogs may be illegal, and any evidence found in that situation may be suppressed in court.
In other cases, law enforcement has advertised a drug checkpoint directly before an exit ramp. Vehicles that pull off the highway and onto the exit ramp are then followed and stopped. Drug checkpoints with ramp diversion stops are unlawful in the absence of some other traffic violation.
If the grounds for your traffic stop were questionable, an attorney may be able to negotiate a lesser charge or have the charges against you dropped entirely. The attorneys at Berry Law believe in safeguarding the rights of individuals charged with drug-related offenses while driving along Interstate 80.
With a depth of experience defending clients charged with drug crimes throughout the Midwest, Berry Law is the Omaha law firm to contact for out-of-state residents facing drug charges in Nebraska.