Drivers who see flashing lights in their rearview mirror likely experience a range of emotions. First, a hope that the police car will speed past their vehicle and move on to another driver. Second, frustration and potentially fear if the officer is conducting a traffic stop on their vehicle. Those who are the subject of a traffic stop have reason for concern. A stop can result in criminal charges that can range from driving offenses to other matters, depending on how the stop goes.
In a recent case, Colorado officers conducted a traffic stop on a young man. The officers claim the driver failed to signal a turn. Upon approaching the vehicle during the stop, the officers stated they smelled marijuana and observed drug paraphernalia within the vehicle. When asked about the smell, the officers state the driver admitted to smoking marijuana. This led to a roadside sobriety test, which the driver allegedly failed, and a search of the vehicle. During the search, the officers allegedly found marijuana, a handgun, pipes, prescription pills, LSD tabs, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The officers arrested the driver and he now faces criminal charges for possession of and intent to distribute marijuana, unlawful possession and intent to distribute cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and various prescription medications as well as traffic offenses.
The case provides an opportunity to discuss three important lessons: the legality of traffic stops, the potential for a search and the availability of defenses.
Lesson #1: The legality of traffic stops
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. As a result, police cannot just pull over drivers because they want to — they need to have a reason to conduct the traffic stop. In most cases, the courts require police to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify a stop. This could include observation of a traffic violation.
Lesson #2: The potential for a search
A traffic stop can result in the search of the vehicle and driver, as was the case in this example. An officer is generally only allowed to search the vehicle if the driver consents to the search, the officer gets a warrant, or the officers have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity. Probable cause is a more difficult standard to meet than reasonable suspicion, but not as difficult as getting a warrant.
Lesson #3: The availability of defenses
If the state moves forward with criminal charges, defenses are likely available. First, it is wise to review the reason for the stop to make sure the officer met the required reasonable suspicion. If not, any evidence from the search may not be allowed in court. Next, if the stop led to a search, it is a good idea to review whether or not police followed proper protocol when conducting the search and gathering evidence. A failure to do so could also mean any evidence found during the search is illegal.
It is also important to note that even a legal traffic stop may violate the law if the officer takes too long or is too intrusive during the stop. The law requires officers use the “least intrusive means reasonably available to verify or dispel the suspicion” of wrongdoing in a short period of time. These are just a few of the questions to ask when building a defense to criminal charges in these types of situations.