In general, a traffic violation stop refers to when the police pull over a motor vehicle for a lawful legitimate reason. For example, if the police have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that a driver has violated a traffic law or is engaged in a criminal activity. A traffic violation stop may also occur when a driver is stopped by a law enforcement officer as part of a sobriety checkpoint or similar program.
Regardless of whether a law enforcement officer is pulling over a vehicle to conduct a police investigation or it is part of a routine traffic stop, the circumstances surrounding the stop must amount to at least reasonable suspicion. They must meet the requirements of reasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Failure to comply with the procedures set out in the Fourth Amendment can result in a violation of a driver’s constitutional rights. Traffic violation stops must also comply with the applicable laws enacted in a particular state or county.
The laws governing traffic violation stops will typically vary by jurisdiction. Thus, a driver who believes they have been a victim of an illegal traffic violation stop should review the laws of the state or of the county in which a stop occurred.
In addition, it is also important for a driver to note that just because they were pulled over for a traffic stop violation, this does not give the police an automatic right to perform a full-blown search of the driver’s vehicle. However, a law enforcement officer may be able to conduct a lawful search of a driver’s vehicle if any of the following factors are present:
- If the driver consents to a search of their vehicle;
- When a motor vehicle contains contraband (e.g., open liquor bottles, drugs, etc.) that is in plain view, such as sitting on top of the passenger seat;
- If the law enforcement officer who pulled over the vehicle has probable cause to believe that the driver has committed or is currently committing some type of crime;
- When the driver is pulled over and subsequently arrested or taken into police custody (note that in such situations the driver’s vehicle will be impounded and subjected to an inventory search); and/or
- If a traffic violation stop is part of a sobriety checkpoint or similar program in which the police have canine units present to briefly sniff the outside of a vehicle.
Again, while these laws will often vary widely from state to state, the police are generally not permitted to search a motor vehicle during a traffic violation stop unless a certain exception applies. The police are also usually not allowed to search a driver’s house based on a traffic violation stop.
In most instances, a traffic violation stop will only result in a traffic ticket for which a driver will be required to pay some amount of monetary fines. A driver who believes they have been a victim of an illegal traffic violation stop will be permitted to challenge the ticket and any associated charges in court.
Finally, if you would like to learn more about police investigations after a traffic violation stop or believe that a police officer has pulled you over for an illegal reason, then it may be in your best interest to speak to a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An attorney will be able to determine whether the police violated your constitutional rights and/or failed to comply with the legal procedures set out by the laws of your state.
In addition, an attorney will also be able to help you challenge any ticket citations or charges you received after a traffic violation stop in court. An attorney can also make sure that any penalties associated with an illegal traffic stop are either dismissed or reduced to an appropriate punishment.
When Is an Investigation Reasonable?
As discussed above, a traffic violation stop may occur when a law enforcement officer pulls over a vehicle based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion that a driver has committed a violation of the traffic laws in a particular jurisdiction or is engaged in some sort of criminal wrongdoing. In most cases, the standard that a law enforcement officer will usually apply to justify pulling a driver over as part of a traffic violation stop is reasonable suspicion.
In general, it is much easier for a law enforcement officer to prove they had reasonable suspicion to pull a car over for a traffic violation stop than it is for them to meet the standard of probable cause.
However, reasonable suspicion must be based on more than an officer’s mere hunch or gut instinct. Instead, a law enforcement officer will need to prove that based on the totality of the circumstances, the facts at hand led the officer to have reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver either:
- Had committed some kind of criminal wrongdoing or violation of the traffic law;
- Is currently in the process of committing some kind of criminal wrongdoing or violation of the traffic law; or
- Will be about to commit some kind of criminal wrongdoing or violation of the traffic law.
For example, if a law enforcement officer sees a driver swerving or drifting from lane to lane, then this may give the officer reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which in turn, will enable the officer to pull the driver over as part of a traffic violation stop.
In addition, law enforcement officers must keep traffic violation stops to a short and reasonable length of time. This is essentially measured as the time that it would take to ask a couple of routine questions, scan a driver’s license and registration, and prove that a driver did or did not commit the violation or crime for which the officer initially pulled them over.
After this is completed, the police officer must then either issue them a ticket, arrest them, or allow the driver to continue on their way.
How Can a Lawyer Help Me?
If you have been pulled over by a law enforcement officer for an unreasonable period of time or in a manner that you believe led to an illegal seizure during a routine traffic stop, then it is strongly recommended that you hire a local criminal attorney as soon as possible.
An experienced criminal attorney can help you assert your rights and protect your interests. Your attorney can also assist you in building a defensive argument against any resulting charges. In addition, your attorney can provide legal representation in criminal court, or alternatively, can negotiate with the prosecutor to get the charges reduced or dismissed on your behalf.
Finally, in the event that you are convicted of the charges that you were arrested for during a traffic violation stop, your attorney can assist you in appealing the decision or in asking the judge presiding over your sentencing hearing for an alternative method of punishm