What Legal Basis Do the Police Have in Order to Conduct a Roadside Police Stop?

Interviewer: Let’s go into people’s constitutional rights in the context of a traffic stop. What reasoning and what basis do police have to have in order to even pull you over? Even just for a traffic stop if you’re in a car?

Your Fourth Amendment Right Protects You against Unwarranted Searches and Seizure

Court: The Fourth Amendment is one of the issues that defense attorneys basically spend their careers protecting. And a lot of people know the Fourth Amendment right; that it is your right against unreasonable search or seizure.

The Police Cannot Detain You without a Reasonable Suspicion That an Illegal Activity Is Taking Place

What it means is that a police officer can’t just stop you and question you or search you or detain you for any reason at all for even a small length of time without some sort of reasonable suspicion that you’re doing something wrong. When it comes to traffic stops, a lot of times people will get stopped for a violation of the law.

Committing a Traffic Violation, However Minor, Constitutes Reasonable Suspicion

So, if you’re speeding, that’s a violation of the law. If you cross lanes without signaling or you run through a stop sign or you turn without signaling, those are all violations of the traffic code. They’re minor violations, but they’re violations nonetheless. So, if an officer observes one of those things, then he has the right to stop you.

Interviewer: Because he has reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed?

Court: Yes, at that point he has reasonable suspicion. So, he’s looking at you, and he has his radar gun, and he sees that according to the radar gun, you’re traveling faster than the speed limit. So that gives him reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime. So he can stop you, and he can investigate you for speeding. But the trick is that most of the time an officer only thinks that you’re drunk.

How Do the Police Develop or Justify Reasonable Suspicion?

He thinks that you’re driving under the influence. Or he thinks that you are a drug courier or something like that. But he doesn’t have reasonable, articulable suspicion under the law to be able to stop you for that. He only has a hunch, basically.

Maybe you’re driving in a certain car that he recognizes as a car associated with drug dealing. That’s not enough suspicion that you’re committing a crime, but then you speed or you miss a stop sign. So, he can stop you. He can investigate you for missing the stop sign. He can investigate you. He can give you a citation for speeding.

But, in order to investigate you for drug possession or drug distribution or a DUI, he has to during that encounter develop some more grounds to justify the suspicion that you are violating some other law.

The Police Base Their Justification of Reasonable Suspicion on Their Observations of Your Behavior and Appearance

So, that’s why when you get pulled over for speeding, and the officer comes up to the car, he’s watching the way that you reach for your license out of your glove box. He’s looking at your eyes to see if they’re bloodshot. He’s trying to smell an odor of alcohol. He’s listening to your speech. The reason is, if he detects some of these other clues that you might be impaired then he then has reasonable suspicion to continue to investigate you for driving under the influence. But he can’t pull you over for speeding, and then just start investigating you for being drunk or investigate you for drug possession or anything else for that matter. He has to develop some additional reasonable suspicion that you’re violating this other law before he can then go ahead and question you about it.

What Transpires to Make a Traffic Violation Stop Become a DUI or Drug-Related Offense Investigation?

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Interviewer: How does a traffic stop become a DUI investigation?

First, the Police Have to Stop You: A Traffic Violation Is Usually the Impetus to Launch a DUI Investigation

Court: I would say 80 or 90% of the DUI cases that I handle are cases that start with a traffic violation and nothing else. So, it could just be speeding and changing lanes without signaling. By the way, these stops always seem to happen at the late hours of the night, and it seems that the defendant is always coming from a bar or a club.

Many Traffic Stops Occur at Night, When People Are Leaving Restaurants and Bars

So, the officer will be parked in his vehicle outside of a club, watching people leave. His suspicion is, well, you’re leaving a club, so you must be drunk. That’s not enough for him legally to stop you, but basically he’s suspicious has already formed in his mind, so he’s waiting for you to commit a traffic violation. And as soon as you do that, he can stop you.

Police Officers Wait for People Leaving These Establishments to Commit Traffic Infractions

So then, when he comes up to the car, and it’s 12 o’clock at night, and he’s pulled you over for speeding, he’s listening to your speech. He is also observing your fine motor skills. So, when you are taking your license out of your wallet, or when you are reaching for your registration out of your glove box, he’s watching your hand. He’s watching your dexterity and how your motor skills are functioning. He is taking the time to detect the odor of alcohol. And he is looking at your eyes to see if they’re bloodshot or watery.

Based on the Officer’s Suspicions That an Individual Has Been Drinking, a DUI Investigation Begins When You Are Asked for Your License and Registration

Almost all the time, what you see on the DUI report is, the officer pulls you over for a traffic violation, and then he talks to you. He smells he odor of alcohol, and then he sees that your eyes are bloodshot and watery. And at that point, he’ll ask you if you’ve been drinking. And so, in order to ask you that he has to have some sort of a suspicion.

So, that’s basically the point where the stop transforms from a speeding violation into an investigation for a DUI. It’s after the officer obtains some additional evidence, such as he smells alcohol or he sees your bloodshot eyes or he sees you are fumbling for your license or slurring your speech.

By Court Koehler

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