When Does a Traffic Stop End and a Criminal Investigation Begin?

Joliet traffic attorneyMost drivers have been pulled over for a traffic violation at some point in their lives, and they have a pretty good idea of how most such stops go. The officer pulls the driver over, approaches the car, asks for the driver’s license and registration, and addresses the alleged offense. Depending on the circumstances, the officer may issue a citation or a warning, and the driver is usually free to go.

In some cases, however, what begins as a traffic stop evolves into an investigation regarding unrelated criminal activity, such as the possession of illegal drugs or possession with intent to deliver. But when does a traffic stop transform into something more? Can the police arbitrarily start looking for other reasons to arrest a driver who was initially pulled over for a minor traffic infraction? The United States Supreme Court addressed these questions in a ruling in 2015.

The Case in Question

In Rodriguez v. United States two years ago, the nation’s high court was asked to rule on whether the police could prolong a traffic stop without reasonable suspicion of an additional crime. The case in question involved a Nebraska man who was stopped for erratic driving by a police K-9 unit. The officer conducted the stop and issued a written warning but did not allow the man to leave immediately. Instead, the officer waited eight minutes for backup then allowed his dog to sniff around the man’s vehicle. The dog alerted the officer to the presence of methamphetamines and the driver was arrested.

The Supreme Court ultimately determined that an officer must have reasonable suspicion to prolong a traffic stop. In this case, reasonable suspicion was not addressed by the lower courts, so the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

What the Police Can Do

When a police officer approaches your car during a traffic stop, he or she is permitted to use his or her eyes, ears, and other senses to analyze the situation. For example, the officer may look into the back window of your car. Anything in plain sight that could be questionable or incriminating—such as drug paraphernalia—could create the reasonable suspicion of a crime. The officer may also observe you, as well. If you appear to be drunk, high, or otherwise under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the officer may have reasonable suspicion to change the traffic stop into a more serious situation. Once reasonable suspicion exists, the police have much more freedom to conduct a more focused investigation.

Call Us for Help

If you have arrested following a traffic stop, your rights may have been compromised. Contact an experienced Joliet criminal defense attorney to discuss your available options. Call 815-740-4025 for a free consultation at the Law Office of Jack L. Zaremba today.

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