For even the most law-abiding citizens among us, suffering through a seemingly random traffic stop on the side of the road is not fun. If the law enforcement officer that stopped you also wants to conduct a full-blown search of your vehicle, your initial reaction may be outrage – or fear. From a legal standpoint, however, you may also find yourself wondering if the officer even has the right to randomly stop a motorist and conduct a search for drugs (or other contraband). To help clear answer some of your questions, an I-80 drug stop lawyer explains when a law enforcement officer can legally conduct a traffic stop and when that stop can legally turn into a search of the vehicle.
When Can an Officer Conduct a Traffic Stop?
Contrary to what many people think, a law enforcement officer cannot just drive around and randomly pull over vehicles in the hope that one of them will have a driver who is drunk or who is transporting drugs and/or evidence of a crime. On the contrary, an officer must have a reason to conduct the initial traffic stop. That reason may amount to what is referred to as a “pretextual stop,” but there must be a reason. A pretextual stop is one in which the officer uses a “pretext” for the initial stop and then turns that stop into a DUI and/or drug investigation. A common example of a pretext is a license plate light that is out or failing to signal a lane change. Both of these violations offer the officer a “pretext” on which to conduct a traffic stop. Once the motorist is stopped, the officer looks for reasons to prolong the stop; however, prolonging the stop and/or conducting a search of the vehicle is only legal if the officer has probable cause at that point.
The Exception to the Rule – DUI Checkpoints
While the general rule states that a motorist is not subject to randomly being stopped while driving, there is an exception to that general rule – DUI checkpoints. In the case of Michigan Dep’t of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided that the importance of keeping impaired drivers off the road generally outweighs the inconvenience and intrusion to motorists caused by a brief detention in a checkpoint. Therefore, DUI roadblocks are legal. SCOTUS did, however, impose some guidelines for checkpoints that are also worth noting.
- Checkpoints must be well-planned out ahead of time.
- It must be obvious to a motorist that they are entering a checkpoint.
- The location must be safe and lend itself to the purpose.
- Vehicles and/or drivers cannot be targeted – investigations must be random.
- Checkpoints must be published ahead of time.
Although the Supreme Court declared DUI checkpoints to be legal, not all states allow them. In the United States, both the federal and state governments may pass laws; however, neither may pass a law that violates the Constitution. Moreover, when it comes to a defendant’s rights, a state may provide a defendant with more rights than the federal government does, but not less. Currently, 37 states, the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands conduct sobriety checkpoints while they are not conducted in 13 states. Nebraska is among the states that do conduct DUI checkpoints.
Although you could be subject to a random stop if you come across a DUI checkpoint, the need for probable cause to prolong the initial stop and/or conduct a search of the vehicle remains valid.
What Is Probable Cause?
Although the term “probable cause” is mentioned explicitly in the Bill of Rights, a definition is not provided. As a general rule, courts consider probable cause to exist when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed or that evidence of a crime will be found in a place to be searched. In the case of a traffic stop, the fact that the driver has committed a traffic violation, standing alone, would not rise to the level needed for probable cause to extend the stop and/or conduct a search of the vehicle.
Every stop involves a unique set of facts and circumstances, making it impossible to predict exactly what is required to form the necessary probable cause for a search of the vehicle. Examples of what might provide the necessary probable cause include:
- If the officer sees a baggie of what appears to be a controlled substance on the console or floor of the vehicle.
- The officer smells what he/she believes to be burnt marijuana in the vehicle and/or on the driver.
- The driver appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- The officer views drug paraphernalia in plain sight within the vehicle.
Contact an I-80 Drug Stop Lawyer at Petersen Law Office
If you were stopped and arrested as a result of a search of your vehicle along I-80 in the State of Nebraska, it is always in your best interest to consult with an I-80 drug stop lawyer about the specific facts and circumstances of your case. Contact the I-80 drug stop lawyers at Petersen Law Office 24 hours a day at 402-513-2180 to discuss your case with an experienced defense lawyer.