There are questions about whether a police officer may stop someone for a traffic infraction when the underlying purpose of the stop is to investigate alleged criminal activity. For example, if a police officer notices that a driver is speeding, but also believes that driver may have illegal drugs in their vehicle, there is a question as to whether it is legal to pull the motorist over solely to look for narcotics in the driver’s vehicle. In a case like this, the officer may originally suspect the driver of a DWAI Drugs offense or of narcotics possession, but may not have probable cause to arrest the driver on these charges until after the initial traffic stop. The legal issue is whether the traffic stop was just a pretext to obtain other evidence without probable cause, and if so, whether the pretext stop is actually legal.
In New York, when a pretext stop occurs and a police officer uses a traffic violation as an excuse to stop a motor vehicle in order to investigate the driver or occupant about a matter unrelated to the traffic violation, you may wonder if it can be challenged. In theory, a DWI defense attorney may argue that a stop for a minor traffic violation that leads to a DWI arrest should be suppressed because the minor violation was merely a pretext for the stop. If a driver does not use turn signals, touches the fog line, waits too long at a green stoplight, or has a broken taillight, he may be stopped as a pretext for a DWI stop. This is far different than speeding or weaving in traffic which is often considered reasonable suspicion for DWI and a lawful basis for a stop.
In practice, though, it pretext stops are permitted.
In New York, in considering the legality of pretext stops, courts usually use what is called an “objective test.” When using this test to consider the legality of a traffic stop, the court looks only at the validity of the stop based on a traffic violation and conducts no inquiry into the officer’s motive in making the stop. As long as the traffic stop was objectively based on a traffic infraction, the stop will not be found to be is invalid even though the officer had another motivation for stopping the driver.
The objective test is based on determining whether the officer could have legally made the stop, notwithstanding any pretext. One of the most important cases to state this principle is the case of Whren v. United States. In the Whren case, the United States Supreme Court rejected the argument that pretext stops are unlawful. In Whren, the Court expressly authorized the use of “pretext stops” by the police. Thus, pursuant to Whren, a police officer can lawfully stop a motor vehicle whenever the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic infraction has occurred — no matter how minor the infraction — even if the officer’s true purpose in stopping the vehicle is to look for a drunk driver.
New York state precedent set forth in People v. Robinson, states the rule in New York that as long as a police officer has probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed, a stop based on a minor traffic violation is lawful and there need not be any inquiry into the primary motivation of the officer nor a determination of what a reasonable police officer would have done under the circumstances. This court case stands for the proposition that in New York if an officer has probable cause to believe a driver has violated the vehicle and traffic law, the officer may make a legal stop, and his motive for the stop is of no importance in considering its legality.
The attorneys at the law firm of Nave DWI Defense Attorneys are experienced in handling DWI cases. If you need a lawyer who can help you obtain the best possible outcome in your DWI case, call the law firm of Nave DWI Defense Attorneys.
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