Traffic Stops and the Fourth Amendment: Know Your Rights

Traffic Stops and the Fourth Amendment: Know Your Rights The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution addresses search and seizure and the public. Part of the amendment states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." The North Carolina Constitution includes similar protections under N.C. Const. Art. I, § 20 statute. According to Terry vs. Ohio, a ruling that addresses traffic stops and the Fourth Amendment and often referred to as the Terry stop rules says: "Except in those situations in which there is at least an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or than an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment." So How Do I Know if My Rights Were Violated with a Traffic Stop? While there are specific actions and situations that are clearly addressed with the Terry stop law, proving that law enforcement violated your rights by pulling you over is a complicated endeavor. "Articulable and reasonable suspicion" is a hard thing to define precisely, so getting a judge or jury to determine your rights were violated will be a challenge. Under the Terry stop law, there are some clearly defined rules for what law enforcement can and can't do. Law enforcement undertaking a warrantless search of an automobile may not extend the search to the passengers of the vehicle unless there is a reasonable suspicion that the passengers are armed and dangerous, in which case it is permissible. But because passengers have no reasonable expectation of privacy in a vehicle, a warrantless, but reasonable, search of the vehicle that turns up evidence implicating the passengers doesn't violate the passengers' rights under the Fourth Amendment. If I Did Nothing Wrong, Do I Still Have to Pull Over or Otherwise Cooperate? Before you start thinking you can "plead the Fourth" just because you think you didn't violate any laws isn't going to fly. Remember, law enforcement can pull you over for any reason they see as "reasonable" and getting into a "she said, I said" scenario probably won't be in your best interest. But just as law enforcement is required to have an objective reason for a traffic stop, drivers are required to comply in a reasonable manner. Sure, you can refuse to take a breathalyzer or choose not to comply with other requests, but the consequences are almost always unfavorable. Refusing to stop for or evading a police officer is the criminal act of not stopping when told to by a police officer. It doesn't matter if the police officer verbally instructs a person to stop or flashes their lights. You can be charged with misdemeanor eluding police, punishable by six months in county jail and/or a $1,000 fine, or you could be charged with a felony under specific circumstances. Simply not noticing the lights of a law enforcement vehicle in the rearview mirror may elicit a warning from the officer and it's not uncommon for reckless driving and other charges to be brought against drivers who refuse to stop for police officers. Checkpoint stops may seem like a violation of the Fourth Amendment but are typically exempt because the reported purpose of checkpoints is for the purposes of promoting highway safety. Once an officer has stopped a vehicle, for example, they may also, based on articulable and reasonable suspicion that weapons or illegal contraband may be present, conduct a Terry-compliant search of areas in which these items could typically be hidden. Law enforcement may also seize any illegal items that are "in plain view” inside the passenger compartment. If you suspect your rights have been violated during a traffic stop, an experienced defense attorney can help protect your rights and may be able to have the case dismissed or the charges reduced. Call The Law Offices of Jason H. Reece in Charlotte at 704-714-8888 or fill out this contact form for a free consultation.