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When Can the Police Stop a Vehicle? Traffic Stops & the Fourth Amendment


Many allegations of criminal conduct commence with a standard traffic stop of a motor vehicle. Often, the stop will result in a search of the vehicle, as well as its passengers and contents. The criminal defense attorneys at our firm review cases involving traffic stops of motor vehicles to ensure that law enforcement had a legal justification to stop the vehicle and that the constitutional rights of the suspect were not violated.

It is a basic tenet of American constitutional law that a police stop and detention of a person constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the United States Supreme Court stated that a police officer is required, prior to effecting an investigative stop, to have a reasonable suspicion based on objective facts that the individual is involved in criminal activity. It is clear from Terry and its progeny that a mere suspicion or hunch of criminal activity which is not supported by specific and articulable facts is an insufficient basis upon which to make an investigative stop.

In Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, at 653 (1979), the United States Supreme Court set forth the standard for determining the constitutional propriety of an automobile stop. Unless there is an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist or a vehicle are subject to seizure for a violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Before subjecting a person to a stop, the police must have a reasonable suspicion that the individual being stopped is or was engaged in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion has been defined as a particularized and objective basis for suspecting a detainee of criminal activity. The determination of reasonable suspicion involves a consideration of the totality of the circumstances. Under this analysis both the content of information possessed by the police and its degree of reliability are relevant to the courts determination.

A reviewing court must be able to weigh the facts offered by the officer against an objective standard and decide that the facts available to the officer warranted a man of reasonable caution in believing that the action taken was appropriate. Anything less would invite intrusions on constitutionally guaranteed rights on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches.

When it comes to stopping a vehicle on the basis that the criminal activity was a traffic offense, Courts have applied a different standard. Where a police officer stops a vehicle based on probable cause that a traffic violation has occurred or was occurring, the stop is not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. This is the case even if the officer has some ulterior motive for making the stop, such as a suspicion that the violator was engaging in more nefarious activity. Whether the police base the stop of a car on purported probable cause to believe that a traffic offense was committed or alleged reasonable suspicion of some other criminal activity, a Court must objectively determine from all of the facts whether the stop was justified.

If you, or someone you know, has been subject to a stop by law enforcement while operating a motor vehicle, or if you have any questions regarding a traffic or criminal case, please contact the law firm of Ian N. Friedman. Our criminal defense lawyers are prepare to answer your questions and prepare a defense tailored to the specific facts and circumstances of your case.