Many of the cases I review start with a driver asking an officer “What’d you pull me over for?” The answer is never completely satisfying. Everyone knows that there are limits on an officer’s authority to pull you over, but not many are aware of what those limits are.
The Investigative Stop
Both the New Hampshire and United States Constitutions protect people from the arbitrary use of government authority. That means the police cannot force you to stop and answer questions without any reason. But how good of a reason does an officer need? The constitutions require that seizures be “reasonable” and require a warrant. But courts over the years have found that traffic stops are not full-blown seizures, so they might not require the same protections as an arrest or confiscation of property. Therefore, to balance the individual’s right to be free from unreasonable seizures against the public’s interest in law enforcement, courts have interpreted the constitutions to allow the police to make a traffic stop for a limited investigatory purpose so long as the officer has “a reasonable, articulable suspicion” based on facts that the driver is, was, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity or has committed even minor traffic violations.
So if an officer sees a person speeding, with a defective tail light, or has some reason to believe that the person just made a drug deal, that officer is allowed to turn on the blue lights and order the driver to stop. It’s important to note that the officer has no obligation to tell you why you’re being stopped. So long as the reason is there, the court will find the officer justified in making the stop.
Expanding the Stop
Once the stop is made, the officer can only keep the driver stopped for as long as necessary to identify the driver, confirm or dispel the suspicion, and issue any tickets or, if it comes to this, make the arrest. To illustrate the point, imagine that an officer sees a person driving too fast. The officer is allowed to stop the car, ask for ID, and ask some questions to see whether the person had a justification to speed.
By far the most common beginning to a DUI case is the officer coming to the window to ask for ID and smelling “the odor of alcohol emanating from the cabin of the vehicle.” This is an example of a new observation that allows the officer to ask more questions. Officers are trained to ask specific questions to test a person — not to see what kind of answers come out, but to see how the answers come out. For example, an officer might ask you to put away your registration in the glove compartment, then ask tan innocuous question like, “where did you go to school?” You might give the correct answer, but the officer doesn’t really care where you went to school. The officer wants to see if you can divide your attention between two tasks at the same time. Even if you get the answer right, you might not be able to come up with the answer until you’re done putting away your registration. That shows the officer that you might be impaired by alcohol and could justify asking more questions, or even asking you to perform field sobriety tests.
But an officer cannot turn every stop into a DUI investigation or a drug investigation. If you’re pulled over for speeding and there’s no odor of alcohol wafting from the window, drug paraphernalia visible through the window, or anything else suspicious, the officer must write the ticket and move on.
Vindicating Your Rights
What if the officer pulls you over for no reason? Or forces you to wait for a drug dog to sniff around without any suspicion that drugs will be found? To get any relief, you need to wait for court. Any evidence obtained through a violation of your rights will be thrown out by a judge. In the meantime, arguing with the police or anyone else will not get you anywhere. Remain calm and find a way to remember everything that’s happening so you can relay it to your lawyer. Taking pictures and making recordings are perfectly legitimate ways to protect yourself from false claims. Having knowledge of the limitations on police is important to designing any DUI defense. Get an attorney with the experience to challenge the constitutionality of your police encounter at your trial. To get started, call us at Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C., 1-800-240-1988 or fill out our online contact form