Top Defenses Following an Interstate Drug Stop
Interstate drug stops along Interstate 80 in Nebraska have become increasingly common in recent years. Branded a “drug pipeline” by law enforcement nationwide, local police are on high alert for the illegal import of controlled substances using the Interstate system. They’re on the lookout for vehicles traveling through Nebraska that may be carrying marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, K2, ecstasy, or other controlled substances.
Unsuspecting drivers are being pulled over for reasons that have very little to do with criminal drug activity. These stops are often the result of police profiling vehicles or drivers and conducting illegal searches. With the legalization of marijuana in surrounding states, stops like this have become more frequent, and law enforcement has even resorted to conducting patrols along state borders to catch motorists carrying small amounts of marijuana, edibles, and hash oil across state lines.
The penalties for interstate drug trafficking can include mandatory prison sentences and large fines, even in cases where only trace amounts of drugs are found. Transporting marijuana, a substance that many states have already legalized, can result in prison terms between one and 20 years.
If you’ve been pulled over for what seemed like a routine traffic stop only to find yourself facing felony state or federal drug charges, contact the attorneys at Berry Law. They’ve pledged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. You can rely on their extensive knowledge and experience to advise you on what comes next.
The Fourth Amendment – Illegal Searches
The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure of property. Many motorists may not know that police cannot lawfully search a vehicle without probable cause that leads them to believe that a crime has occurred or is occurring. When pulled over for a traffic violation, drivers are only legally obligated to cooperate with law enforcement by providing a driver’s license and proof of vehicle registration.
They have the right to refuse to answer questions and can refuse to consent to a voluntary search of their vehicle. In fact, if an officer of the law doesn’t tell a motorist that he or she is being placed under arrest, the driver is free to go after the officer returns his or her documents.
In some cases, law enforcement have unlawfully detained motorists without probable cause while they waited for a K-9 unit to arrive. Once drug-sniffing dogs pointed on potential substances, officers searched the vehicles. Any evidence discovered at that time may have been illegally obtained if a motorist was detained against his or her will, and it can be shown that the officer had no probable cause to detain them.
An experienced attorney can argue in court against unauthorized or coerced searches of a vehicle and the use of drug sniffing dogs without probable cause. Even in cases where an officer establishes probable cause to search a vehicle because they see evidence of controlled substances or drug paraphernalia, the officer’s search is limited to areas of the vehicle where it appears they may reasonably expect to find related evidence. In some cases, law enforcement has exceeded the limits of what they can search, and that evidence may be thrown out before it reaches a jury.
A preliminary hearing will be held to determine whether enough evidence exists for the case to go forward. The burden of proof is on the government to show that there was probable cause to search a defendant’s vehicle in the first place, that a crime was committed, and that the defendant or defendants in question committed the crime.
Most interstate drug stop cases are won or lost at the hearing. Arguing that police violated the Fourth Amendment by unlawfully obtaining evidence can result in that evidence being suppressed in state or federal courts. Without evidence that a jury can see, the prosecution doesn’t have a case to take to trial, and the case may be dismissed.
Determining whether there was probable cause for a vehicle search is just once piece of the puzzle. A criminal defense attorney will look at all of the evidence presented before advising his or her client on a strategy for defending themselves against charges. Contacting an attorney as soon as possible following an interstate drug arrest will put a defendant in the best position to win his or her case.
Abuse of Power
In addition to Fourth Amendment defenses that challenge illegal searches, an attorney may argue other defenses, including police abuse of power or mistakes. Although law enforcement is permitted to lie in drug cases when promising leniency or using undercover agents, there are many other tactics that have been used that are not permissible.
Unlawful tactics that have been employed by police to prove a drug case include unauthorized surveillance, planting evidence, or pressuring suspects and witnesses without legal representation present. In these cases, statements and evidence that was gathered due to police abuse of power may be suppressed in court as well.
Since occupants may not have realized they were in a vehicle carrying illegal substances, some states allow for an unwitting possession defense. This refers to situations where a person who has been accused of possessing drugs had no knowledge that they were doing so. For example, a driver who borrowed a car from a friend discovered later during a routine traffic stop that the friend had marijuana in the glove compartment.
When arresting and charging a citizen with possession, law enforcement works off of the constructive possession doctrine, which says that a person who is in a vehicle with illegal substances and is in the position to exercise control over them can be found guilty of possession. In these situations, minors or individuals being held against their will would likely be immune, but under the constructive possession doctrine, consenting adult passengers would be placed under arrest whether or not they claim that they had no knowledge of drugs being present.
When an unwitting possession defense is used, it’s up to the defendant’s attorney to prove that their client wasn’t aware of the presence of drugs in the vehicle. In some cases, one party in a vehicle may accept responsibility and testify that the other occupant or occupants had no knowledge of the drugs.
Even in cases where that doesn’t occur, a jury may still find an occupant to be unwitting at trial based on facts, statements, and other evidence gathered during the traffic stop.
A medical marijuana defense would only be used when the jurisdiction in which the defendant has been charged allows for prescription medical marijuana use. While advocates have long advocated for the Nebraska legislature to legalize the use of medical marijuana, as well as made a case to legalize marijuana entirely, it’s still illegal to possess marijuana in the state.
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The attorneys at Berry Law can attack the prosecution’s case by examining events that followed a routine Interstate traffic stop. They will look at how police handled questioning of suspects and witnesses, how long a motorist was detained, and whether there was reasonable suspicion to search a vehicle in the first place. When your freedom is on the line, trust the legal team at Berry Law to advise you.