When Can the Police Stop You on the Highway?

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Law enforcement officers working on state and interstate highways look for various traffic violations or other indicators when considering whether to pull over a vehicle, often with the goal of contacting the driver and developing reasonable suspicion or probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle, regardless of whether the driver consents to the search. The following is a list of ten of the more common reasons law enforcement officers give for the initial stop of a vehicle on a highway. This list is not exhaustive; there are many other reasons not listed here that allow law enforcement officers to stop a vehicle on a highway.

1) Following Too Closely

Following too closely is one of the most common bases for a traffic stop on the highway, likely because the distance that is considered safe is subject to interpretation by the officer. Nebraska Revised Statute 60-6,140 states that “The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, and such driver shall have due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the roadway.”

What is following “more closely than is reasonable and prudent”? The Nebraska DMV Driver’s Manual recommends a minimum three-second following distance as a safe following distance. However, this is a minimum following distance under good driving conditions, and it should be increased by several additional seconds or more if there is rain, ice, snow, fog, heavy traffic, faster speeds, or any other complicating factor that you may encounter while driving.

2) Improper Lane Changes

Improper lane changes provide another common basis for traffic stops on the highway. Many drivers commonly change lanes either simultaneously while engaging the turn signal and changing lanes or less than the 100 feet required before changing lanes, a violation of Nebraska Revised Statute 60-6,161.

Depending on the speed at which you are traveling, you may be required to signal your turn or lane change for several seconds prior to changing lanes. Furthermore, keeping your turn signal blinking through the entirety of the lane change may help avoid an officer determining that you turned off the signal too soon.

3) Speeding

Regardless of the “norms” of your home state, assume there is a zero-tolerance policy for speeding. Any person who operates a vehicle even one mile per hour over the posted speed limit can be pulled over and cited for speeding.

Be sure to monitor changes in the speed limit as you are driving the highways. In addition to pulling people over for driving over the posted speed limit, police will often park in the median near significant changes in the speed limit and pull people over for either accelerating too quickly or not slowing down fast enough. While these stops may result in a warning, law enforcement officers can and will use the opportunity to conduct further investigation of you and your vehicle.

4) Expired Registration

If you drive a vehicle that has not been properly registered, then you are committing a traffic violation and law enforcement officers will take the opportunity to pull your vehicle over to initiate an investigation. Regardless of the length of time your registration has been expired, whether one day or ten years, it is a violation, and you are subject to being stopped at any time.

5) Rental Vehicles

The fact that a driver is driving a rental vehicle, alone, cannot normally serve as the basis for a traffic stop. However, law enforcement officers routinely testify that, based upon their “training and experience,” rental vehicles are often used to traffic narcotics, money, and other contraband around the United States.

Law enforcement officers may see rental vehicles with out of state plates and follow them until a traffic violation has been observed. During the course of the investigation that occurs after a traffic stop is initiated, they will attempt to build probable cause or obtain consent to search the vehicle.

6)  Vehicle Headlights Off

Most drivers think it’s easy to tell when they are driving without headlights at night. However, in well-lit urban areas, it may not always be so easy to tell. Fortunately, thanks to advances in technology, most vehicles on the road today are equipped with automatic headlights. If you are driving at night, double-check to make sure your headlights are on before you put the vehicle in drive, and if you have automatic lights, leave them set to the “on” position.

7)  Failure to Maintain Lane/Weaving

Law enforcement officers are trained to look for signs of impairment, but even the slightest traffic infraction allows for them to initiate a traffic stop. Something as seemingly minor as touching or crossing either of the lane dividers or the “fog line” separating the driving lane from the shoulder may provide law enforcement officers a reason to pull over a vehicle. Even weaving within your own lane, in the right circumstances, can support a traffic stop. Always avoid distracted driving and keep your vehicle driving straight, and between the lines.

8)  Driving While Impaired/Tired, Causing Any of the Above Moving Violations, or Others

The effects of consuming alcohol are well-known: loss of coordination, slowed reactions, dulled perception, including balance, spatial awareness, and vision, and lowered inhibition. Many of these symptoms are also caused by overtiredness. Whether the cause is alcohol or lack of sleep, the symptoms can contribute to any of the above moving violations. As mentioned above, something as simple as failing to maintain your lane by briefly touching a lane divider can be cited by law enforcement as a sign of impairment and lead to a traffic stop.

9)  Inoperative Vehicle Lights or Other Vehicle Parts that Draw the Attention of Officers

Many are taught in driver’s education classes that a driver should always thoroughly inspect the vehicle before driving. This is especially important when driving long distances at high speeds. Unfortunately, not many drivers regularly check all their lights and other vehicle parts as they are in a rush to depart at the last minute.

A good practice before any long trip is to take your vehicle to a reputable mechanic who will check all the lights, fluids, and critical engine parts to ensure that your vehicle is safe and trustworthy. Law enforcement officers have every right to approach a driver when his or her vehicle is broken down on the side of the highway. They may also pull over any vehicle that has an obvious unsafe condition or any burned out lights that are required to be functional.

10) Attempts to Avoid Checkpoints

While traveling the highways, drivers may see signs warning of an impending checkpoint: a sign reading something like, “State Patrol checkpoint / Drug Dog in Use” will alert drivers of a slowdown ahead. Sometimes these signs are used as trick designed to catch the attention of someone attempting to circumvent law enforcement. Those drivers that would rather avoid a potential drug dog sniff will often exit the highway in an attempt to find a way around the checkpoint.

Conveniently, these “ruse checkpoint” warning signs are usually placed a mile or so before an exit for a rural town. Law enforcement may lie in wait for those who exit the highway, only to watch the driver and/or follow the driver until he or she commits a minor traffic violation.

Conclusion

As stated above, this list of ten common reasons that law enforcement may decide to pull over a driver on the highways is not exhaustive—there are many other reasons law enforcement officers may cite for stopping a vehicle on any roadway. Always follow all traffic laws and other state/federal laws to help ensure that your trip is not interrupted.

Finally, in the current legal environment in the United States, it is important to know that drug laws vary from state to state. For instance, possession of marijuana edibles for personal use may be legal under the state laws of a given state, but that same possession of marijuana edibles may be a felony in another state, such as Nebraska. Ignorance of the laws of the state you happen to be driving through are not a defense, so be aware of the laws in the states you travel through.

If you are ever stopped on any roadway and charged with a criminal offense, don’t hesitate to contact the attorneys at Berry Law Firm for a free initial phone consultation.

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