From claims of a burnt-out taillight to a speeding charge, all too often, police officers attempt to use a relatively minor traffic violation as a reason to stop and detain the driver and search their vehicle for evidence of an unrelated offense. Motorists should know that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution may protect them against unlawful searches and seizure of property without reasonable or probable cause.
Failing to follow traffic-stop protocol and search-and-seizure laws generally are among the top reasons that officers face allegations of civil rights violations. Unfortunately, despite Fourth-amendment protections, even routine traffic stops may lead to an unlawful arrest or unrelated charge.
How “reasonable suspicion” may lead to a warrantless search
The Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from search and seizure of their belongings without probable cause of a crime. However, in the case of traffic stops, the courts also recognize the authority of an officer to detain and search a vehicle if he or she has only a reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a crime, traffic-related or not, or if the officer believes the motorist is in possession of illegal items.
How claims of reasonable suspicion may fall short
While the law allows an officer to stop a vehicle when he or she has reasonable suspicion of a crime, the officer must be able to produce specific, articulable facts that logically support that suspicion. An officer may not detain a vehicle based on a mere hunch or at random, nor may the officer stop a driver because he or she fits a certain broad profile.
If an officer is not able to demonstrate reasonable suspicion, the court may consider the search illegal and any evidence inadmissible. An officer may also use a traffic violation as a pretext to search a vehicle for suspected contraband. However, if the officer is unable to show that he or she had sound justification for making the traffic stop, any contraband or other evidence of a crime found during a search may not be admissible in court.