Illegal Stop by Police
Why does it matter if a police officer stops a person illegally? A police stop may be a traffic stop or other Terry stop. But either way, a court must suppress all the evidence from an illegal stop. The prosecution can’t use it to charge or at trial.
The social harms of police stops
When the government interferes with your liberty or property rights, the government must justify the violation. The law requires that a greater intrusion be balanced by a greater fact-based justification.
American law uses different words to describe this justification. These include: reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity, probable cause that a person has committed a crime, etc.
Leaving aside justification, what is the problem with police stops, or Fourth amendment seizures of people, anyway? After all, you’ve likely been pulled over for a traffic violation and apart from the ticket, you survived well enough.
Government seizures are not trivial — death can result
Unfortunately, some people do not survive a police stop without suffering injury or death, as news reports frequently remind us. Sometimes police officers are hurt or killed. Other times it’s a suspected criminal. Even innocent, law-abiding citizens are injured or killed by police – after what seemed a “routine” traffic stop.
Another problem exacerbated by many traffic stops for trivial reasons is the disparate impact based on race of, for example, marijuana laws.
Harm reduction: Minimizing police contacts to those truly necessary can reduce these social harms caused by police contacts. Courts can reduce these harms by getting tougher on every illegal stop.
The Legal Standard for a Fourth Amendment Seizure
Does is matter if the car or person is “already stopped” at the time of the Fourth Amendment seizure? No, it does not.
Whether police had a lawful reason to detain a person and require information or compliance, is the real issue.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Terry vs Ohio
The Fourth Amendment of the Untied States Constitution affirms every individuals right to be free from unreasonable searches. Police need a search warrant signed by a judge unless a court recognized exception to the warrant requirement applies.
A Terry stop allows the police to briefly detain someone if police have reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity. Anything less is an illegal stop.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s case, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), held that police may briefly detain a person whom they reasonably suspect is involved in criminal activity.
Terry also held that police may sometimes conduct a limited search of the detainee’s clothes for weapons. But, police must have reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person may be “armed and dangerous.” This is a Terry stop and frisk.
To justify a stop, police must be able to articulate specific facts that would lead a reasonable police officer to believe that the person is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity. Past conduct alone is not enough.
Traffic stops of motor vehicles
In addition to the “reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity” standard for a brief detention; a traffic stop is also justified by an observed traffic or vehicle law violation.
Though most speeding violations are not a crime, a police officer can lawfully pull a driver over for speeding. Similarly, an equipment violation observed by a police officer can justify a traffic stop.
An illegal stop lacks both an observed violation and “reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity.”
Two types of traffic stops
When it comes to Fourth Amendment seizures of people in motor vehicles, we have two categories of police justification claims:
- Observed traffic or equipment law violations, though not crimes.
- Facts observed amounting to “Reasonable, Articulable Suspicion of criminal activity” (or “RAS”).
Standards of proof – traffic or equipment law violations
If a driver accused of petty misdemeanor speeding has a trial before a judge, the prosecuting attorney has the burden of admitting evidence into the trial court record that the judge believes proves guilt beyond any (reasonable) doubt.
But, compare that to a pre-trial evidentiary hearing before a judge challenging whether a traffic stop was legal, where evidence of a crime (say, DWI) was later discovered. Assume the only justification for the stop was speeding.
While the prosecutor still must prove that the traffic stop was lawful; she need only prove that the police officer had an objective basis for believing that the driver was speeding.
The prosecution could lose the speeding ticket trial, after winning the stop challenge hearing. More evidence is necessary to convict than to justify a Fourth Amendment seizure.
Standards of proof – Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion of criminal activity
The legal standard for the government to justify a Fourth Amendment seizure is lower than, for example, the evidence required to support Probable Cause to charge a crime.
The Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion of criminal activity (or, “RAS”) standard requires objective reasons in the present tense before a police officer can briefly detain a person. Information police get after, cannot justify the stop.
If a judge does not believe there was an objective basis for the stop, she will suppress the resulting evidence.
The prosecutor won’t be able to use evidence from an illegal stop to support a criminal charge or at trial.
Your Criminal Defense Attorney
A good defense lawyer will consider whether a defense challenge to a Fourth Amendment seizure could be successful. Because most police investigations begin with a Terry stop, a successful challenge can mean a complete win for the defense.
The Fourth Amendment analysis does not end there, however. We also take a look at the level of intrusiveness and length of the detention and whether it was justified; as well as whether any subsequent search was illegal. Even if the initial reason for the stop was justified, police expansion of the stop may be illegal.
Minneapolis Criminal Attorney Thomas Gallagher‘s three decades experience challenging illegal stop cases can pay off for you.
Question? Call Minneapolis Criminal Attorney Thomas Gallagher at 612 333-1500