How Much Traffic Law Do Police Need to Know?
The majority of our law firm’s cases involving the possession of illegal guns and firearms, along with those involving illegal narcotics and drugs, start with vehicle or car stops. Remember, from my previous blogs and my free books, the police need probable cause to stop a car in most situations, but there are exceptions (DUI/DWI) which allow police to stop a car for reasonable suspicion (driver in distress, driver impairment).
Probable Cause & Vehicle Stops
Probable cause to stop a vehicle is based on any violation of the Pennsylvania or New Jersey motor vehicle code (Read my article New Jersey traffic stops.) Police are required to have knowledge of the code and they have received this training during their initial police academy training, as well as continuing education training courses. The Pennsylvania Vehicle Code (Title 75) addresses all matters related to the operation and control of cars and motor vehicles in Pennsylvania. This title also outlines violations such as driving under the influence (DUI), driving on a suspended license, reckless and careless driving within the Commonwealth.
To establish probable cause, a police officer must articulate the specific facts that caused him to stop the car. Without those specific facts the Commonwealth (Prosecution) can’t establish probable cause. Without probable cause, any evidence obtained is inadmissible as fruit of the poisonous tree and the prosecution cannot use it against the person. Without this evidence the district attorney’s office will more than likely have to withdraw the charges for lack of evidence because the bad stop violated the person’s Constitutional Rights under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution as well as Article 1 Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Common Bad Police Traffic Stops In Pennsylvania—Failure to Use Turn Signal
Some of the most common bad vehicle stops involve the failure to use a turn signal prior to changing lanes. Police often use this alleged violation as a pretext because they believe the vehicle contains contraband but can’t otherwise articulate a basis for this stop. In other words, police have a hunch or some feeling that would not otherwise allow a vehicle stop so they use a minor vehicle violation which they would normally disregard. In Pennsylvania drivers are required to signal 100 feet prior to turning [75 § 3334 (a,b)]. This, however, does not apply to changing lanes. This “100 feet rule” is reserved strictly for turns and so, if a police officer testifies that a driver failed to signal at least 100 feet prior to changing lanes, this would not serve as a sufficient probable cause basis for a stop. There is Pennsylvania case law on this issue (Commonwealth v. Slattery).
The Pennsylvania Standard—Police mistake regarding traffic code will lead to suppressed evidence
In the Slatterly case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled specifically that police officers are required to have knowledge of the vehicle code and a mistake regarding the code suppresses all evidence found after a vehicle stop. This means that, even if the police find contraband (drugs, guns, or an intoxicated driver) following a bad vehicle stop, all of the evidence is inadmissible. This is an incredibly strong tool that your defense attorney can use in any case involving firearms, narcotics, or drunk driving.
The Federal Standard on Police Mistake and Traffic Stops is Different (Is it a Reasonable Mistake)
The Pennsylvania standard is different from the federal standard because the United States Supreme Court has ruled that when a police officer makes a reasonable mistake about a motor vehicle code offense, the stop is not illegal. Under the federal standard, if the police officer finds evidence in plain view following a stop or something within the car (smell, presentation of the driver) leads to a search, all of that evidence is admissible. See Heien v. North Carolina.
For more information on vehicle stops in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, I encourage you to keep reading this blog and visit my free download section. I also encourage you to watch all of my free videos which are available on this website.