Spring is coming and pretextual vehicle traffic stops will increase…except in Philadelphia
Spring is almost here and the winter weather is about gone! Many will travel to friends and family to celebrate holidays like Easter, despite gas prices at all time high. Recently, Philadelphia passed a new law (Drivers Equity Law) and it 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. Read my blog article.
Despite, Philadelphia’s new law, the rest of Pennsylvania and New Jersey’s law enforcement aren’t forcing police to ignore these low level traffic offenses which often lead to more serious criminal charges.
Vehicle Issues & Traffic Stops—Pretextual Vehicle Stop
It’s important to keep in mind that police sometimes stop vehicles for unrelated traffic offenses and/or vehicle deficiencies in order to begin an investigation and possibly a warrantless search. These are known as pretexual stops (I encourage you to read my article on these stops for more information). If you’re traveling, take a minute to look over your vehicle to ensure that there is no issue which would cause a police officer to stop you. Police officers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey can use a pretext to stop a car and begin an investigation at that point for a completely unrelated issue; outside of Philadelphia of course. By way of an example, a car with a hanging license plate or a plate that is obscured or covered in any way offers police a perfect opportunity to stop a vehicle and begin an investigation where they wouldn’t’ otherwise have reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
Here are the most common pre-textual traffic stops in Pennsylvania.
License Plate Issue—Is it Displayed Properly?
In Pennsylvania, under Chapter 47 of the Pennsylvania code, every license plate needs to be securely fastened so that it complies with all of the following requirements:
- It is clearly visible
- It is in a horizontal position (not including motorcycles)
- Have a height of not less than 12” from the ground, measuring from the bottom of the registered plate
- To prevent it from swinging (See Section 47.3, Pennsylvania Code).
REGISTRATION AND INSPECTION STICKERS
As of December 31, 2016, Pennsylvania no longer requires that vehicles display a registration sticker on the license plate but still requires a vehicle emission and inspection sticker. The inspection sticker needs to be affixed to the inside, driver’s side, bottom corner of the windshield and clearly visible from the outside of the vehicle. See Section 47.4 – Validating Stickers in Pennsylvania)
What to do if police stop your vehicle?
If you’re stopped for what you believe to be a pretextual issue, it is important that you explain to your criminal defense lawyer what you were doing when the police stopped the vehicle and any deficiencies that the police may or may not have explained to you. Keep in mind however, police need to document the basis for the stop on the ticket itself, the incident report, and the arrest memorandum if the stop eventually leads to an arrest for the violation itself or some other reason.
Vehicle Searches & Pretextual Stops—Police need a search warrant in Pennsylvania but do NOT need a search warrant in New Jersey
If during a pretextual stop a police officer detects or notices an odor of alcohol it may lead to a field sobriety test and/or a search of the vehicle. In Pennsylvania, unllike New Jersey, police need warrant to search a vehicle if they believe the vehicle itself contains contraband (drugs, alcohol, and illegal guns). Further, a search warrant, however, is not necessary if the driver gives consent for the search. If you’re stopped this holiday for any reason, be respectful of police but never consent to the search of your vehicle. If you’re asked to give a chemical test (blood or breathalyzer) you should NOT refuse it as you have no constitutional right to do so. If you do refuse the test PennDot can and will suspend your driver’s license regardless of the outcome of your criminal case.
In closing, I just wanted to point out what Philadelphia’s Driver’s Equity law covers
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
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