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What You Need to Know About Police Traffic Stops

What You Need to Know About Police Traffic Stops…

Searches of Your Home and Suppression of Illegally Obtained Evidence

Every citizen is protected from unlawful searches and seizures of his or her person or property by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This strikes the balance between individual freedom and the needs of law enforcement to protect society as a whole. Where most of us encounter the Fourth Amendment is with a police traffic stop. About everyone has been pulled over for speeding and received a warning or ticket. This blog covers what you need to know about traffic stops and suppression of evidence obtained from an illegal traffic stop.

Unlike the intrusive nature involved in searching your home (your castle), a traffic stop is a minimal interference with your life. In 1968, the United States Supreme Court decided the Terry1 case, and further defined your protections under the Fourth Amendment. In this landmark case, the Court held that a police officer may not initiate a traffic stop based on nothing more than inarticulate hunches. What this means is a police officer may not simply guess you might be doing something wrong and stop your car just on a random thought. All of us, at times, have probably driven in ways that seem bizarre, such as the way you parked, going back to your car, moving to another spot, and just doing things that, from a third-party observation, look weird. There is likely an explanation for the bizarre behavior. This does not allow the police to stop you.2

However, the “criminal activity” contemplated in Terry does not have to be much. In fact, it does not even have to be criminal. It can be an ordinance violation or a civil infraction, which are both a violation of the law, and therefore allow a traffic stop. Perhaps the most common types of lawful Terry stops are speeding, driving left of center, weaving, running a traffic light, an expired license plate, or simply having a burned out tail light. If these circumstances exist, the traffic stop is lawful.

Where a simple traffic stop becomes problematic–if it is just based on a generalized hunch or unsupported guess–is where the driver is intoxicated, has drugs or contraband in the car, or a felony with a firearm on-board. These are common examples. If the stop is illegal under the Fourth Amendment and does not meet the Terry requirement, all of the criminal acts the police officer discovers may be suppressed. This means the State (prosecutor) could not use the evidence obtained in the illegal stop, and, if suppressed, the case would be dismissed.

Thus, in every case where serious crimes are discovered based on a traffic stop (or search of a home), skilled criminal defense attorneys look at the “stop” critically. What did the officer base his decision to stop on? Guesses won’t do it. If this is the case, a suppression motion may be successful and the case dismissed. The theory is the right to freedom is so precious that illegal stops cannot be tolerated or we would have no freedom at all. The only way to enforce this balance between freedom and public safety is to “suppress” crimes discovered as a result of an unlawful stop.

Ultimately, the ability to file a suppression motion is one of several powerful tools available to criminal defense attorneys handling cases involving serious crimes discovered as a result of an illegal stop. Know your rights. Select a skilled criminal defense counsel. Raise the issue of whether there is a suppression issue in your case. Suppression also applies to unlawful searches of an individual’s home, but this search has a higher burden of proof—the police officer must obtain a search warrant signed by a judge or face emergency circumstances.3 Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. advocates handle significant criminal cases throughout the State. This blog is written for general educational purposes and is not intended as a solicitation for legal services or legal advice. It is an advertisement.

  1. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
  2. This legal standard and analysis applies to police encounters (if they are “stops”) with citizens on the street and public places. 
  3. Malone v. State. 882 N.E.2d 784 (Ind.Ct.App.2008) (police needed a search warrant to seize a handgun from a defendant who was standing on the front porch of his home; thus, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of suppression of the unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon)

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Dixon & Moseley, P.C., is a law firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. We serve clients in six core practice areas: family lawappellate practicefirearms lawgeneral practicepersonal injury and criminal law.

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