Pretextual Stop Gives Police Probable Cause to Search a Vehicle

Anytime a Utah resident is pulled over for a minor traffic violation, that incident has the potential to become a pretextual stop, or an opportunity for police to find probable cause to search a vehicle.

Suspicious vehicle

Pretextual Stop

Photo by: Tony

There are times when law enforcement sees a vehicle that they would like to search but they have no probable cause to allow them access to it. The vehicle may be “suspicious” by fitting a certain profile that would allude to possible criminal behavior by the vehicle’s occupants or officers may want to search a car to help an unrelated investigation. Instead of waiting for a crime to be committed by the driver or getting a warrant to search the car, the vehicle may be followed until it makes a minor traffic violation instead.

Broken taillight = probable cause for a search

Speeding, switching lanes without signaling, no seatbelt, and even a broken taillight are all reasons that police can use to pull a car over and issue a citation. These simple traffic stops can also give law enforcement the opportunity to find probable cause to search a vehicle. A planned traffic stop with a hidden agenda is referred to as a pretextual stop, or an opportunity for law enforcement to search a vehicle for a reason that is actually unrelated to the traffic violation.

Whren v. United States

Photo by: Blogtrepreneur

In 1995, Whren- a driver of Mexican descent- was traveling along a stretch of road known as being a major drug trafficking corridor. Officers spotted Whren and proceeded to follow him for over 20 miles. Eventually a couple minor traffic violations such as failure to use a turn signal at a stop sign and speeding were made. This gave officers the opportunity to pull the vehicle over where they noticed narcotics in Whren’s hand. In court Whren attempted to have the evidence surpressed due to the pretextual stop violating his Fourth Amendment rights, however that motion was denied and he was ultimately convicted.

Pretextual stop not unconstitutional

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures that are conducted without probable cause. Unfortunately, the United States Court of Appeals stated in Whren’s case that a pretextual stop did not violate Whren’s Fourth Amendment Rights. They explained: “the temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective.” They went on the further clarify that “Detention of a motorist is reasonable where probable cause exists to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.”

Limits to a pretextual stop

Photo by Drew Stevens

Although the U.S. Court of Appeals determined a pretextual stop to be constitutional, there are limits to what officers are allowed to do once a vehicle is stopped. A pretextual stop allows an officer to pull over a vehicle for a traffic violation but not necessarily to search the vehicle. In order to conduct a search, officers would have to have a warrant or probable cause to do a search. Probable cause might include:

• Seeing contraband in plain view;
• Smelling of illegal drugs by an officer or K9; or
• Observing activity that gives officers reasonable suspicion of a crime such as reckless driving that could indicate alcohol consumption or drug abuse.

If an officer cannot find probable cause to search a vehicle during their pretextual stop, they may ask the driver for permission to search. In an effort to cooperate with law enforcement, many individuals wouldn’t dare saying “no” when asked if officers can look in their vehicle. This is often a major loophole that police use to search a car without probable cause. While being respectful, it is perfectly acceptable to refuse officers to do a vehicle search. If they search a vehicle without probable cause, a warrant, or permission and find evidence of a crime, drivers are encouraged to wait politely but silently and have legal counsel discuss the unreasonable search during court. The evidence collected would likely be dismissed along with related charges. With all cases regarding a pretextual stop or illegal searches and seizures, it is recommended to obtain the aid of a criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney will help ensure that no constitutional rights have been violated and that all searches were made lawfully.

Sixth Amendment Rights Regarding Criminal Proceedings

The Sixth Amendment entitles defendants to specific rights regarding criminal proceedings which they should be privy to prior to their court hearings.

Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Sixth Amendment

Photo by: Phil Roeder

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution is a segment of the Bill of Rights which was presented into the Constitution in 1789 and reads: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” The Sixth Amendment gives protection to defendants during criminal proceedings and should be understood completely to ensure the rights of the accused are not being violated.

Speedy and public trial

Speedy. Criminal proceedings can often take days and even weeks to conclude; however defendants should not spend an excess amount of time incarcerated prior to these proceedings, especially if they have not been released on bail. This also makes sure the availability of any witnesses for the defense or prosecution.

Public. Defendants have the right to a public trial; No criminal proceedings should be done in secret. This not only protects the defendant from hidden corruption within the system, it allows the public including family and friends of the defendant to observe the trial and observe that it is carried out justly. This likewise permits the media to be present and report on the case as it transpires. The defendant may waive this right if desired or access to the proceedings may be limited by the courts to guard a defendant’s right to a fair trial or to protect a witness from coercion.

Impartial jury

Photo by: J

Photo by: J

All defendants have the right to an impartial jury. This is ensured through the jury selection process. Jury selection is first done randomly from a pool of registered voters in the area. After the original jury pool, the defense and prosecution are able to question possible jury members at which point they have the opportunity to object to any person they feel would not be able to be impartial to the case. Some scenarios in which a jury member would be challenged are: when they have a personal relationship or association with the accused; if they have biases or preconceptions for or against the defendant; if their opinion on the type of crime in question is unwavering; or just for the reason that either the prosecution or defense chooses not to have them on the jury.

Informed on charges

This may seem obvious, but the Sixth Amendments protects the rights of defendants to be informed on the charges that they are facing and “the nature and cause of the accusation”. If a defendant is unaware as to why they were arrested or facing trial, they would be less likely to prepare adequately for their defense.

Confrontation clause

Photo by: Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC)

Photo by: Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC)

The confrontation clause protects the defendant’s right to confront those accusing them of a crime. This allows the accused the opportunity to face and cross examine the witnesses who are making allegations, giving the defendant ample opportunity to debate the accusations against them. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave even further rights to the defendant by ensuring that the confrontation clause would be applicable in federal AND state courts. There are some instances when confrontation is not permitted, such as when the witness is a child and their testimony is not recorded in court, but done prior to the proceedings.

Defense counsel and witnesses

The final rights stated in the Sixth Amendment ensure that the accused has the right to obtain witnesses who are “in his favor” as well as an attorney to defend him/her. The compulsory process clause allows the accused the right to have witnesses speak on their behalf to aid in attesting to their innocence or poke holes in the case. These defense witnesses may even be issued a subpoena, ordering them to appear in court. Regarding defense counsel, if the accused is in good mental health they may waive their right to counsel if they choose. All defendants however are allowed to seek a reliable defense attorney of their choosing or have an attorney appointed to them by the court. It is recommended for anyone facing charges to always seek out an experienced criminal defense attorney to guarantee that no constitutional rights are violated and that all the protections of the law are provided.

Will a “No Trespassing” Sign Protect a Roommate from a Search Warrant?

When someone living in a shared home is served with a search warrant for their residence, another roommate may have their private room explored as well, even if a “No Trespassing” sign is posted.

State v. Boyles

Search Warrant

Photo by: Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office

When law enforcement officials began a search on the home of James Fitts who they had under investigation, they were unaware that a locked room with a “No Trespassing” sign belonged to another roommate, Evan D. Boyles. After forcing their way into the locked private room, they discovered drug paraphernalia and arrested Boyles after he stated the room was his. Boyles attempted to have the evidence suppressed in court since Fitts was the target of the search warrant, however that motion was denied.

Vague search warrant

Photo by:  Nicolas Raymond

Photo by: Nicolas Raymond

Although officers may have known which bedroom belonged to Fitts, they claimed to be unaware that the “No Trespassing” sign meant a private room. Typically, a search warrant will specify which areas of a residence can be searched and what items are being located however the search warrant obtained for Fitts’ residence allowed officers to search every inch of that property. It stated “all outbuildings, garages, sheds, vehicles, trailers, boats, locked containers, and other property contained within the property lines (. . . )” could be searched.

Protection for roommates

Photo by: Jason Taellious

Photo by: Jason Taellious

Sharing a residence with others definitely has its ups and downs. While the cost of living may be decreased with more individuals splitting the bills, there is a diminished sense of privacy that comes with the territory. Just as labeling food in a fridge is common practice among roommates, clearly labeling private bedrooms can also be helpful in the unfortunate event that a search warrant is placed on the home. Had Boyles’ room stated that it was the “private room of Evan Boyles” instead of simply “No Trespassing” officers would have to be aware it was a separate residence. A more specific sign could have made the difference in whether or not Boyles’ charges were dropped. For more information on Fourth Amendment Rights regarding search and seizures, contact a criminal defense attorney.