What Justifies a Traffic Stop?
Most people are unaware of when they can and can’t be pulled over. A police officer can’t pull you over just because they want to. Below, we discuss the criteria a police officer needs to pull you over, and what to do if you feel a police officer has pulled you over without meeting this criteria.
Probable cause is required for a traffic stop.
In order for a police officer to pull you over, they must have what is called “probable cause.” Probable cause, in essence, means officers must believe a crime is being committed. This can be ANY crime. It can be either a violation of an Oklahoma statute, or a violation of a city ordinance. This doesn’t have to be a major crime, nor does it need to be a traffic crime — it can be ANYTHING.
The broad definition of a “crime” for the purposes of probable cause, has recently come under fire, because city ordinances outlaw activities that many people believe are perfectly legal. For example, you are not permitted to have anything obstructing the view of your windshield, which includes car air fresheners. If you have an air freshener hanging from your rearview mirror, an officer can pull you over on that basis alone. This specific interpretation of probable cause has been criticized recently, because many people hang things from their rearview mirror. With this ordinance in place, nearly every car can be pulled over if the officer wants to.
Additionally, committing a single, minor traffic infraction — such as swerving over the lane line, even just once — is cause to be pulled over. Even though most officers wouldn’t write you a ticket for a lane violation, the infraction is enough reason to pull you over if they choose to. This is because “driving left of center” or “driving right of center” are both traffic violations. Often, an officer will pull you over if they observe this and talk to you for a moment to determine whether you are intoxicated.
What if the officer is wrong?
If a police officer pulls you over for something they think you are doing wrong, but is later proved to be incorrect, their initial belief is still enough to establish probable cause. The law states that an officer’s mistaken but honest belief that a crime is being committed is enough to establish probable cause.
You may be wondering, how can that happen? There was recently a viral news story about an officer pulling a car over because they saw a hand sticking out of the trunk. The officer believed that someone had been kidnapped and shoved into the trunk of the car, and pulled the car over to investigate. It turned out that the trunk contained a plastic mannequin hand, not a person, but the officer could not have realistically realized that from inside his patrol vehicle.
This means the officer still had probable cause to pull the car over, even though the driver had not violated any laws. During the traffic stop, the officer observed drugs in the center console of the car. The officer was legally allowed to arrest the driver for the drugs, even though it had nothing to do with the original stop AND the reason for the stop was not a crime.
If officers have probable cause to pull me over, does that mean they can search my car?
No. Just because an officer has probable cause to initiate a traffic stop, it does not mean they can search your car. There is an entirely separate legal basis needed to search a car. However, if a law enforcement officer asks to search your car, and you say yes, they do not need to meet this legal basis. If you are stopped by a law enforcement officer, and you do not want them to search your car, do not give them permission.
How long can officers keep me pulled over after I’ve been stopped with probable cause?
This is a really difficult question to answer, and is often argued in court. The law doesn’t provide a specific amount of time that an officer can keep you pulled over. The general consensus is it must be a reasonable amount of time, and officers can’t allow the traffic stop to go on longer than necessary.
The law is very clear that certain delays are not reasonable. One of these delays is lengthening the traffic stop for a drug alert dog to be brought on scene. While it is perfectly legal for an officer to use a drug alert dog if the animal is already present, the officer cannot keep you at the traffic stop while a drug alert dog is brought to them.
What do I do if I believe the officer didn’t have probable cause to pull me over?
If you think the officer didn’t have probable cause when you were pulled over, contact an attorney immediately. They can file a motion in your case and potentially obtain the dash cam footage to determine what the officer claims was their reason for the traffic stop, as well as what happened during the traffic stop. Your attorney will then argue to the judge that the officer didn’t have probable cause, and it will be up to the judge to determine if that was the case.
What if the judge finds that the officer didn’t have probable cause?
If the officer didn’t have probable cause for the traffic stop, all charges from the traffic stop are dismissed, which means they go away completely. This is true even if the officer finds evidence of a serious crime that isn’t attached to the driving violation. This means whether you are charged with failure to stop at a stop sign or trafficking in drugs, your case would be dismissed as a result of lack of probable cause for the traffic stop.
What if the officer didn’t have probable cause, but didn’t write me a ticket or charge me with a crime?
While you can always file a complaint with the police department, there isn’t much that can be done about an officer pulling you over without probable cause and then letting you go. The law looks for “remedies,” meaning ways to fix the problem you are faced with. In this case, the law’s remedy for an officer pulling you over without probable cause is to dismiss your case. Since you do not have a case to dismiss, there isn’t a legal harm and therefore there isn’t a legal remedy.
The Bottom Line
An officer can’t pull you over unless they believe you have violated the law in some way. This doesn’t have to be a major crime, but probable cause MUST exist for the stop. If you believe you were pulled over without probable cause, there is a remedy to that. A motion can be filed in your case, and the judge will listen to arguments on both sides to determine whether the traffic stop was lawful.