8 Kinds of Illegal Police Stops
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People in the United States have the right to be free from harassment from the police. In other words, police powers are limited in the United States. The United States Constitution protects people from unlawful interference from federal, state, and local law enforcement.
In order to protect your rights, it’s helpful to see examples of illegal police stops. Here are eight different kinds of impermissible police stops explained by our Las Vegas car accident attorneys.
Can police stop you for no reason?
A law enforcement officer can only stop or detain a person when they have a valid reason. If a police officer stops you without a valid reason, they’ve performed an illegal traffic stop. Police receive months of training to ensure they understand and follow proper police procedures, so there’s no excuse for them to ignore proper procedures.
Familiarizing yourself with situations that could lead to an unlawful traffic stop can help you identify an unlawful stop so you can take steps to protect your rights.
1. No Reasonable Cause
The police can only stop you when they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, or is being committed, by you. Law enforcement can’t stop you unless they can articulate why they believe you are doing something against the law.
It’s not enough for the police to make up a reason, either. Their motive for stopping you must be reasonable under the circumstances when looking at it objectively. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) is the U.S. Supreme Court case that establishes the individual right to be free from police stops without suspicion or evidence of a crime.
2. Changed Purpose/Fishing Expedition
When the police stop you, they can only keep you for the time needed to handle the reason they stopped you in the first place. The police can only change topics or hold you to investigate new questions in limited circumstances.
For example, if they stop you for a routine traffic matter and then see drugs on the floor of your vehicle, they can investigate. However, they can’t keep you until a drug-sniffing dog arrives if there are no drugs in sight, and they have no reasonable grounds for suspicion of illegal activity. It’s illegal to go on a fishing expedition during a police stop.
3. Race or Gender
The police can’t stop you because of your race, gender, how you’re dressed, or the fact that you’re in a high-crime area.
The police can’t conduct stops based on how people look or other kinds of prejudice. If they suspect you of a crime, they can stop you. However, if they stop you because of race and other biases, it is an illegal police stop.
At times, some police might be convinced that something is true and want to investigate it further.
However, it’s illegal for the police to stop people based on a hunch. They have to be able to explain a valid reason for the stop. Explanations like “I just knew” or “based on my years of experience” are insufficient. A simple hunch is an impermissible reason for a police stop.
5. Criminal History
People who are known to law enforcement may make unfair targets for police.
The police may want to stop and harass someone because they’re recognizable to law enforcement. While the police can run your license plate while driving, they can’t stop you just because you have a criminal history. Of course, this is different when you’re on probation or parole. However, once you’ve served your sentence, you get a fresh slate.
6. To Give You a Type of Present
Turn on your local news during the holiday, and you might find a feel-good story about the police. For example, they may stop motorists to give them a turkey or a Christmas gift. Even though it might seem like a nice gesture, the truth is that the police cannot stop a motorist without a reason related to law enforcement.
If they have a reason to believe that you committed a traffic offense, they can surprise you with a turkey instead of a traffic ticket. However, they cannot stop a law-abiding motorist without suspicion of a traffic violation.
7. Anonymous Tips
Anonymous tips generally cannot be the basis for a police stop.
That’s because the police may not have the specifics that they need to evaluate the information. Also, they don’t have a way to assess the credibility of the tipster. Sometimes, an anonymous tip can be enough, but it has to be more information than just identifying the person. An anonymous tip must be reliable, and it must be more than an accusation.
In Florida v. J.L. (2000), the police received an anonymous tip that a man at a bus stop had a gun. They didn’t have any independent suspicion that the man was committing a crime, but they frisked the man anyway and found the unlicensed weapon. However, the courts concluded that an anonymous tip of that nature was insufficient to sustain a criminal charge.
8. To Satisfy Incentives
It might seem unbelievable that the police would stop vehicles just to get an extra day of vacation, but it’s been done.
It’s illegal for the police to get incentives, like a day off work or a gift card, for the number of tickets or stops they make. That kind of incentive program gives the police a strong bias and inappropriate motivation to do their work. If the police stop you because they’ve been promised something for doing it, it’s an impermissible police stop.
What to Do on My First Police Stop
Police stops are stressful for motorists and police officers. Police are vulnerable to passing vehicles and don’t know how the traffic stop may progress when approaching a vehicle. Consequently, police are on high alert for any signs of danger.
Drivers and passengers can protect themselves by taking the following actions:
- Stay calm. This might be easier said than done, but being emotional will only increase tension during a traffic stop.
- Pull over as soon as possible. Choose a safe place to stop.
- Bring the car to a complete stop. Put the vehicle in park and shut off the engine. This tells the police officer you’re ready to cooperate and don’t plan to hit the gas and speed off when they approach your vehicle.
- Throw the keys on the dashboard. This reinforces your intent to remain at the scene.
- Put your hands on the dashboard. Make sure your hands are visible at all times. This prevents them from worrying that you’re reaching for a weapon or suspecting you’re doing something illegal.
- Do not exit the vehicle. You should remain in the vehicle unless you’re asked to get out. Exiting the vehicle without being asked suggests a potential threat and increases the tension during a police stop.
- Limit verbal interactions. Some states require you to identify yourself when asked, and failing to do so can be grounds for an arrest. Otherwise, you can tell the police officer you’re exercising your right to remain silent and decline to answer other questions. You’re not obligated to tell the officer where you’ve been, what you’re doing, or where you’re going. Answering some questions may put the officer at ease, but you shouldn’t provide any unnecessary information during your traffic stop.
- Ask the police officer why they stopped you. They must have a valid reason, such as your failure to use a turn signal or a busted brake light. Although police traffic stop procedures don’t require officers to tell you the reason for the stop, asking may help you determine if it’s an illegal stop.
- Decline consent for a search. Police can’t frisk you without your consent unless they suspect you have a weapon. They can’t search your car without consent or reason to suspect criminal behavior. Stating that you do not consent to a search is a crucial way to protect your rights if you’re the victim of an illegal search.
There are two other things you can do to protect your rights, particularly if you’re the victim of an illegal traffic stop.
- Memorize the officer’s badge number. Make a note of identifying information and any details that could be relevant.
- Record the stop with your cell phone. You have the right to record your stop, and video evidence can protect you from false allegations.
What about DUI checkpoints?
Police set up DUI checkpoints to prevent people from driving while intoxicated. DUI checkpoints are common near significant sporting events, concerts, public fireworks displays, or New Year’s Eve celebrations. Police should follow DUI checkpoint protocols, and as long as they do so, motorists should cooperate during a DUI checkpoint stop. Understanding the checkpoint protocols and what police are allowed to do ensures you know your rights and aren’t subjected to an illegal stop.
What Are the Correct Police Traffic Stop Procedures
Once police witness a potential traffic violation or suspected illegal activity, they should follow correct traffic stop protocols. This involves following or approaching the vehicle and using flashing lights to signal that the driver should pull over.
The police should park behind the vehicle once it’s stopped. The police will check the license plate to determine if there are any outstanding tickets or if the vehicle’s owner has outstanding warrants for arrest.
The police officer will approach the driver’s side window and ask to see the driver’s identification, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration. In most situations, the police officer will identify the infraction and either discuss the situation with the driver before letting them go with a warning or give them a ticket.
Protect Yourself Before a Police Stop
There are ways to protect yourself from police stops before they happen or prevent issues during a police stop. Use the following tips to protect yourself from illegal traffic stops:
- Keep your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance handy. The last thing you want to do during a police stop is root through the glove box and under seats looking for documentation.
- Check your lights before driving. This can prevent a police officer from stopping you for a burnt-out brake light or headlight.
- Obey traffic laws. Follow the speed limit and turn on red lights when allowed to avoid traffic stops.
- Drive safely. Avoid lane splitting if you’re driving a motorcycle.
Are You Allowed to Walk Away From a Police Officer?
Yes, you are allowed to walk away from a police officer if you are not detained under reasonable suspicion of committing an offense and if the police don’t have a warrant for your arrest. You don’t have to stay and answer questions if you’re a witness or if the police just want to make small talk.
Some states have stop and identify laws, so you may have to give your name to the police if they suspect you of committing a crime. In general, if you are under no suspicion, you are allowed to walk away from a police officer.
What to Do if You’re the Victim of an Impermissible Police Stop
If you’re the victim of an impermissible police stop, you can take action. You may be able to suppress the evidence gathered against you if you receive a traffic ticket or a criminal charge during an illegal stop. A skilled criminal defense attorney can use evidence of an illegal stop to get your case dismissed. Also, you may be able to file a legal claim in order to hold law enforcement accountable for their actions.
If you believe that you were the victim of an impermissible police stop, contact our team of personal injury lawyers today for your free consultation. Our attorneys have years of experience and know how to defend motorists from illegal traffic stops. Call us at 702.382.0000 to discuss your case and learn how we can protect your rights after an illegal stop.
FLORIDA v. J. L. CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA. (2000).
GT Sheriff “Dismisses” Construction Zone Tickets. (2015).
John W. TERRY, Petitioner, v. STATE OF OHIO. (2022).
Merriman, T. (2021). Is it illegal to record officers when you get pulled over?
Police and Detectives: How to Become One. (2022).
Police Give Turkeys, Not Tickets | NBC News. (2018).
Thompson, M. (2015). Tickets to be dismissed following sheriff reward incentive.
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