When a police officer pulls a person over on a traffic stop, he or she is being detained and not arrested. A lawful detention can lead to an arrest if the police officer has a reasonable suspicion that the detainee has committed or is in the process of committing a crime. A traffic stop for no reason other than to investigate somebody isn’t permitted though. That’s how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Delaware vs. Prouse in 1979, and that ruling has been the law since then.
The discretionary spot check for a traffic stop
Prouse was pulled over on a traffic stop for purposes of a routine check on his driver’s license and registration. The arresting officer hadn’t witnessed Prouse commit any traffic violations, there were equipment violations, and the officer hadn’t observed any suspicious conduct. No established guidelines or procedures governed the stop. While approaching the car during the stop the officer purportedly smelled marijuana, and a search revealed marijuana on the floor of Prouse vehicle. That marijuana was later used to indict Prouse. At issue was whether the discretionary spot check and search of Prouse’s vehicle was an unlawful search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If you are pulled over because you were vaping an e-liquid vs marijuana, it can make the difference.
The Prouse holding
In a nearly unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that random spot checks without established guidelines and procedures at a police officer’s sole discretion constituted an unlawful seizure. Police officers could not randomly stop a driver without probable cause or a reasonable suspicion that a crime was in progress or had been committed.
The reasonable articulable suspicion
A police officer is permitted to make a traffic stop if he or she has a reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation or crime has been or is being committed. Pulling that vehicle over allows the officer an opportunity to make a brief and reasonable inquiry into a driver’s behavior. There are many different reasons for a police officer to pull a vehicle over. Those might be traffic or equipment violations or even criminal activity, but the reason for the stop can’t be the police officer’s subjective perceptions. There must be objective facts and circumstances that reasonably resulted in a reasonable articulable suspicion.
There are three general legal guidelines for when a police officer can search a vehicle during a traffic stop.
The easiest way for a police officer to search a vehicle is pursuant to consent. He or she might ask to search a vehicle, and permission might be given. Consenting to a search isn’t mandatory, but if consent is given, it’s likely that the entire vehicle will be searched one way or another.
If the police officer has a reasonable suspicion that you’re hiding something that’s dangerous or illegal, he or she has a legal basis for a search of the vehicle. Depending on what state you’re in, that might include a locked glove compartment and trunk. Motor vehicles are mobile, and evidence can be quickly transported or disposed of. An exception to the Fourth Amendment exists because of those factors.
The search warrant
Most motor vehicle searches are either consensual or pursuant to a reasonable suspicion. If an officer wants to go by the book, he or she can deposit a person in a safe place like the back seat of a squad car. Another officer can swear out the affidavit for a search warrant and present it to a judge. It can then be driven out to where the person is being detained.
Remember that that a traffic stop is a mere detention. You haven’t been placed under arrest, but being detained can lead to an arrest. The general rule is that you can’t be pulled over without a legally valid reason like a traffic or equipment violation. If the officer has a reasonable articulable belief that a crime has been or is being committed, that’s a legal basis for a traffic stop. A motion to quash arrest and suppress evidence illegally seized was a powerful tool for William Prouse. That type of motion might be successful in your case too. Never give a confession. Invoke your right to an attorney. Call us as soon as possible after any arrest.
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