Philadelphia’s Driver’s Equity law bans police pre-textual traffic stops – What does it mean and why it won’t likely make a difference.
Philadelphia is the first major city in the United States to ban police stops for low-level traffic offenses. According to studies, these traffic stops disproportionately affect minority drivers.
While these alleged minor traffic offenses account for about 97% of police vehicle stops (approximately 300,000 police stops a year), I do not believe that it will significantly change the number of prosecutions which occur for more serious crimes such as illegal drugs, narcotics and firearms.
What does Philadelphia’s Driver’s Equity law ban?
Under Philadelphia’s new law, police can no longer stop drivers for any of the following traffic offenses:
- Vehicle registrations expired for 60 days or less
- Temporary registration permits that are in the wrong location, but otherwise clearly displayed in the rear window
- Unfastened registration plates, as long as they are still visible
- A single brake or headlight out
- Other obstructions, like rearview mirror decorations
- Minor bumper damage
- Operation of Vehicle Without Official Certificate of Inspection.
- Unlawful Operation Without Evidence of Emission Inspection
Philadelphia Police can still stop a car for moving violations
While police may no longer be permitted to stop a car for a vehicle deficiency such as a bad inspection, most driver regularly exceed the speed limit on residential streets, fail to come to a complete stop, or accelerate through yellow lights when they legally obligated to slow down! All of these moving violations would not fall under the new Philadelphia law so there is plenty left for police to stop vehicle in Philadelphia.
Police Searches Following a Traffic Stop – Police Need a Warrant
Outside of consent and the Plain View doctrine, law enforcement in Pennsylvania can not search a vehicle without a warrant
Police sometimes stop a car for 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.
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.
How do Pennsylvania Court deal with it?
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.
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.
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