Top 10 Reasons for Interstate Drug Stops

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Interstate 80 and I-29 have seen increased police surveillance over the past few years due to high-profile drug trafficking cases across the country. Interstate 80 runs east to west from New Jersey to California, while I-29 runs north to south, crossing the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri. Interstate 80 intersects with Douglas County and the city of Omaha.

While local law enforcement is within its jurisdiction to police drug trafficking activity, they cannot randomly stop vehicles without cause. There have been instances of police profiling drivers or vehicles and conducting unlawful traffic stops. If you believe that you’ve been unlawfully stopped or detained by law enforcement, or if that stop resulted in a search of your vehicle, the attorneys at Berry Law can advise you on your rights.

When Can an Officer Legally Stop You?

An officer can legally conduct a traffic stop if he or she has reasonable cause. For example, if the officer clocks a vehicle speeding or crossing left of center, they would have reasonable cause to pull over the vehicle in question. Other more minor infractions could include having a brake light that doesn’t work or failing to signal before changing lanes.

In the case of drug trafficking patrols, these are often referred to as pretextual stops because they give an officer a reason to pull a vehicle over. What officers may actually be looking for are DUI or drug offenses. Even if a driver is pulled over, law enforcement can only lawfully search a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is being committed.

For example, if an officer smells alcohol or marijuana on the driver or inside the vehicle upon approach, they may argue that they have probable cause to believe that the driver is under the influence. Likewise, the behavior of the driver, visualization of open containers, or baggies of what appears to be a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia have all been cited as probable cause for conducting a search of a vehicle.

Probable Cause to Search a Vehicle

A traffic violation alone does not give probable cause to search a vehicle. Courts have been very clear that reasonable cause only exists when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime will be uncovered in the process of searching the vehicle.

Unlike the search of a house or property, if law enforcement believes that they have probable cause to search a vehicle, they are not required to wait for a search warrant to be issued before proceeding. This is because there is an automobile exception to the warrant rule due to the mobility of vehicles and their ability to leave the jurisdiction before one can be issued. The courts have recognized that there is a reduced expectation of privacy when it comes to public roads and highways than in one’s own home.

There are cases where vehicle searches have occurred that have later been found in court to be unlawful and a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In many of these instances, any evidence that was discovered during the search was later thrown out, and in some cases, charges were dropped completely. An experienced attorney can determine whether probable cause actually existed before a search was conducted.

Cracking Down of Drug Trafficking

Interstate 80 in Nebraska and I-29 in Iowa have been dubbed as drug pipelines by law enforcement due to their location and reputations for interstate drug trafficking. In their efforts to crack down on drug trafficking through their states, police are hypervigilant to vehicles that they believe may be transporting illegal narcotics or contraband, including marijuana, methamphetamines, and heroin.

Following the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, departments set up patrols along state borders to crack down on motorists carrying marijuana, edibles, and hash oil into Nebraska across state lines. For some drivers, a simple traffic violation suddenly turned into felony drug charges following an unlawful search of a vehicle.

Profiling vehicles for interstate drug stops has been denounced by both the Supreme Court and state courts and is in violation of the Fourth Amendment assurance against unreasonable searches and seizures. Police must still have reasonable cause or a belief that illegal activity is occurring in order to pull a vehicle over.

These judgments are often subjective on the part of the acting officer, and many motorists have been unfairly targeted, taken to the police station, and questioned. It was later determined that the reasons they were stopped were subjective or prejudicial, and that their vehicle was illegally searched.

Top Reasons Police Stop Drivers During Interstate Drug Trafficking Patrols

Here are some of the most common reasons that drivers are stopped during interstate drug trafficking patrols:

1. Having Out-of-State Plates

Driving through Nebraska or Iowa with out of state plates on I-80 or 1-29 can make vehicles a target for traffic stops. This is an example of profiling and targeting drivers, and has become increasingly common since some states have legalized marijuana in other parts of the country.

2. Committing a Minor Traffic Offense

Anything from failing to wear a seatbelt to speeding can offer cause for an officer to stop a motorist on the interstate. Other common offenses include failure to signal, crossing left of center, an improper lane change, driving on the shoulder, and running a traffic signal. Once stopped for a seemingly routine traffic offense, the driver is asked to consent to a voluntary search of his or her vehicle.

3. Following Too Closely

The law states that a vehicle should maintain a reasonable and prudent following distance from other vehicles. Because this standard is subjective, what constitutes as following too closely is left to the discretion of the officer. In many cases, following too closely has become a frequently cited cause of interstate traffic stops in Nebraska for travelers from out of town. These stops are usually more about interstate drug trafficking than they are traffic violations.

4. Unlawful Fake Drug Checkpoints

Another tactic that law enforcement has employed in some instances is fake drug checkpoints. Police set up patrols along state borders to detect the illegal transport of drugs. They often post a sign right before an exit ramp stating that a drug checkpoint is just ahead. Drivers who exit onto the ramp instead of driving toward the nonexistent checkpoint are often followed until they commit a minor traffic offense, stopped, and asked to consent to a search of the vehicle. This is an unlawful practice.

5. Voluntary Stops

Some drivers are followed long enough by law enforcement that they stop voluntarily to ask why they are being followed. In this case, officers don’t have to have reasonable cause to stop the vehicle in question because the driver has already done so themselves. In an effort to be cooperative, the driver will often consent to a voluntary search of his or her vehicle as well.

6. Driving a Rental Car

Travelling well-known drug trafficking highways in a rental car makes a driver a magnet for interstate traffic stops. If the car has been rented in a name other than the driver’s, suspicions may further arise. This is because police often have experience with dealers who cover up ownership so that they can say they didn’t know there were drugs or weapons in a vehicle in case of a search.

7. Equipment Violations

Having a tint on vehicle windows that is darker than legally allowed, a broken windshield, or a brake light or headlight out are easy for law enforcement to see from far away. Air fresheners hanging from a vehicle’s rearview mirror can lead to traffic stops. In some states, having an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror can result in a fine because it impedes the driver’s view. This is not the case in Nebraska.

8. Prior Arrests & Convictions

If an officer runs the plates on a vehicle, and it’s registered owner has previous arrests and convictions on his or her record, law enforcement may be more likely to pull the vehicle over, especially if those prior offenses were for possession of narcotics or otherwise drug-related.

9. Destination or Direction of Vehicle

Vehicles that appear to be headed toward known drug hubs like Atlanta, Denver, or Chicago can make police suspicious that there’s possible trafficking going on in their jurisdiction. They may claim probable cause if the story the driver tells doesn’t add up. For example, he or she is headed to one of these cities on vacation, but there isn’t any luggage visible in the vehicle.

10. Driving With Expired Tags

Motorists with lapsed tags are often targeted for traffic stops. It’s a good idea to keep tags current to avoid the inconvenience of stopping and a possible citation.

In each of these cases, a driver may be asked to consent to a voluntary search of their vehicle. This is typically because the officer doesn’t have probable cause to conduct a lawful search otherwise. A driver does not have to answer questions or give consent for a search of his or her vehicle, even if asked by law enforcement. If the officer doesn’t tell a driver that he or she is under arrest following a traffic stop, the driver can politely tell the officer that they need to be on their way.

Unlawful Detainment

There have been cases where law enforcement has unlawfully detained a motorist that they have no probable cause to detain while they wait for a drug-sniffing K-9 unit to arrive. Any delay of a motorist without probable cause may be unlawful, and an experienced attorney, like those at Berry Law can help to establish the legality of detainment. If evidence is found after a driver has been detained to wait for a K-9 unit, a court may decide to throw it out.

In situations where probable cause is established during a routine traffic stop and an officer sees or smells illegal substances or contraband, the motorist can be arrested. Following the arrest of a driver or passenger in a vehicle, law enforcement is usually allowed to search the areas of the vehicle where it reasonably appears they might find evidence related to the traffic stop, drugs, weapons, illegally possessed contraband or other materials used in the commission of a crime. Likewise, if contraband is found on the occupants of the vehicle during arrest and search, police are usually permitted to search the vehicle.

Contact Us Today for Legal Help

The attorneys at Berry Law can listen to your situation and advise you on your legal rights when it comes to interstate drug stops and vehicle searches. Let their experience work for you. Contact us today to set up a confidential consultation.

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