Vehicle and Traffic Stop Searches Where is the limit?
Our law firm defends a number of individuals charged with crimes involving the possession of illegal drugs, narcotics, and firearms in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and its surrounding counties of Delaware, Bucks and Montgomery. We also defend person in Southern New Jersey . Many of these cases begin with a vehicle (car) or traffic stop. It’s important to understand that one of the strongest defense arguments in these cases is the violation of a person’s rights under the Fourth Amendment to The United States Constitution, Article 1 Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, or Article 1, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. Remember that these are pre-trial motions which your criminal defense lawyer must argue before trial in order to exclude this often extremely incriminating evidence from your case.
Why Pre-Trial Motions are so important to gun and drug cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
If a piece of evidence, like an illegal gun or a narcotic (heroin, crack cocaine, marijuana), is found to be admissible, the only remaining defense argument would be that of actual or constructive possession.
When a police officer stops a car, the duration and scope are limited by the purpose of the stop though the officer may investigate further and require the following:
- the demonstration of documentation pertaining to the right to operate the vehicle (license and registration),
- may run a computer check and issue a citation.
Unless there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the officer may not continue to detain the driver and the vehicle to investigate matters which aren’t related to the traffic stop.
The Supreme Court has held however that a detention during a valid traffic stop doesn’t violate the detainees’ Fourth Amendment rights even if it exceeds the amount of time needed to investigate the traffic infraction which initially caused the stop, as long as the following exist:
- The facts that emerged during the police officer’s investigation of the original offense create reasonable suspicion that additional criminal activity warranting additional present investigation
- The length of the entire detention is reasonable in length in light of the suspicious facts
- The scope of the additional investigation is reasonable in light of the suspicious facts
When does a police officer exceed the scope of a traffic stop?
The mere fact that a police officer questions a driver or the occupants about an unrelated topic during a valid traffic stop does not mean that the officer has exceeded the reasonable scope of an investigation.
The standards and limits which apply to a traffic stop are similar to those of a Terry Stop and Frisk for which I have written previous blog articles. The bottom line principle is that both the length of the stop and its scope must be considered in determining that a stop is reasonable. Keep in mind, however, that a police officer’s safety is always a consideration and it is therefore reasonable during a traffic stop for a police officer to ask a driver about loaded weapons in the vehicle, even where there is no information indicating the presence of a weapon or gun. The driver in these situations is under no obligation to respond to the officer’s question and may remain silent.
What about if a driver appears nervous?
It’s also important to understand that the fact that a driver of a vehicle is stopped for a traffic violation and appears nervous or even extremely nervous, does not amount to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. This does not justify extending the scope of the detention beyond that of a permissible traffic violation. It is common for most citizens, whether innocent or not, to exhibit signs of nervousness when confronted by a police officer. The court’s will evaluate whether an officer has acted diligently, whether a suspects actions contributed to added delay, and whether the police officer acted diligently to bring the investigation to a close. For more information on illegal stop, searches, and seizures, I encourage you to visit my free download section and check out my free book “What Everyone Should Know About Drugs, Guns, and Defense Lawyers in Pennsylvania”.