Pretextual Traffic Stops and Consent

Police sometimes stop a car on pretext such as a moving violation or some other vehicle code infraction so that they can search the car or the occupants themselves.  In Pennsylvania, police must be able to articulate a legitimate basis to stop a car for a motor vehicle violation.  Even where an officer can establish a legitimate violation, courts have required that an officer establish an independent cause before allowing searches of the occupants or the car.

In many situations, officers search the vehicle and the occupants by simply obtaining their consent to the search.  Even if the occupants provide consent, however, the search could still be unlawful if the stop itself was improper.  If the stop is proper, the officer can search the vehicle “absent coercion and absent any impermissible seizure of the person providing consent.

The Fourth Amendment does not require the officer to inform the defendant that or she has the right to refuse consent or that he or she is free to go.  Request for consent is valid if the Commonwealth demonstrates that the defendant was no longer detained, the officer’s conduct, did not subject the defendant to another seizure, and the consent is completely free of coercion.  Courts will consider, the nature of the initial stop, whether the defendant was actually informed that he or she could leave, whether the defendant was informed that he or she could deny consent as well as all surrounding circumstances.  Pennsylvania courts have ruled that most people believe that they are in the police custody as long as the officer continues to question him.  Courts have also ruled that police officers must demonstrate a cause for suspicion at the end of a traffic stop to request consent to search.  There can be no consent where the officer stopped the defendant without reasonable suspicion.

While consent obviously allows a police officer to search you and/or your car, it is important to remember that there is a legal principles that allow an officer to conduct a legal search without your consent during a traffic stop.  The Plain View Doctrine allows a police officer to seize any item without consent where its incriminatory character is immediately apparent, the officer is lawfully in the place where the size occurs and has lawful right of access to the object.

While it is important to cooperate with law enforcement during a traffic stop, it is equally important to understand your rights in these situations.  If you are arrested continue to cooperate with the police but be sure to inform your attorney of circumstances surrounding the incident so that he/she can assert these constitutional protections in your defense.