Law Update: By Dallas Criminal Attorney Mick Mickelsen
It has happened to most people: You’re driving along — maybe belting out the lyrics to your favorite song that just came on the radio — when you see red and blue flashing lights in your rearview mirror. That’s when your heart starts pounding, and your blood pressure spikes. Getting pulled over can ruin your entire day. But do the police have the right to pull you over just because they feel like it? If you were speeding, you have a pretty good idea why you’ve been stopped. But what if you were paying close attention to the speed limit and were obeying all traffic laws?
The short answer is that the police don’t have the right to pull you over for no reason. Furthermore, if they stop you for no reason and they end up spotting evidence of a crime — like a bag of drugs in plain view on your passenger seat — in your vehicle, they usually can’t use that evidence in court against you. However, there is an important exception to this general rule.
Police Need a Reasonable Suspicion of a Crime to Pull You Over
It is well-established that the police don’t have the authority to single out random vehicles and pull them over just because they’re bored or they feel like ruining someone’s day. Rather, a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed an offense. The most obvious reason for pulling someone over is that the driver was exceeding the speed limit. The police have the authority to enforce traffic laws, and that includes making sure that motorists obey the speed limits.
Similarly, a police officer who observes a vehicle swerving or driving erratically on the road can cite a reasonable suspicion of drunk driving as a reason to stop a car. If you were just reaching for the cell phone you dropped on the floor of your car, the officer can’t ticket you for drunk driving, but he might decide to give you a ticket for being irresponsible and endangering yourself and other cars on the road. (This is why it’s a good idea to always turn off your phone before you get behind the wheel.)
The police can also pull someone over if the driver or the vehicle matches the description of a suspect in a crime. For example, the police often receive tips about suspects and vehicles possibly connected to criminal activity. It is in the interest of public safety for police officers to be on the lookout for vehicles and drivers that match the descriptions of cars and individuals who might be involved in an ongoing crime. In these cases, the source of the reasonable suspicion comes from the tip.
Police officers can also detain people and conduct a brief, investigatory search if they have a reasonable suspicion that someone has committed a crime or that they’re engaged in a criminal activity. This type of stop is known as a “stop and frisk” or a Terry stop, which takes its name from the 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio.
Police Can’t Use Illegally Obtained Evidence Against You
In some cases, the police stop someone without a good reason. However, during the stop, they see evidence of a crime. For example, during a traffic stop, an officer might spot a crack pipe on the person’s seat. In these cases, the officer might try to use the crack pipe as justification for making an arrest and charging the driver with a drug possession offense.
Generally, the law holds that evidence obtained pursuant to an unlawful stop is not admissible in court. This is known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, which means that evidence — even if it really does support a possible conviction for a crime — can’t be used in court if it was only discovered because an officer conducted an illegal stop or search. This doctrine is derived from the Exclusionary Rule.
However, there are important exceptions to this general rule. Evidence that might normally be thrown out can still be introduced in court if it meets one of several exceptions:
- Independent Source – The evidence might still be admissible if it was discovered due to an independent source. For example, if police stopped a vehicle unlawfully, but the driver already had an outstanding warrant, any evidence seized might be covered by the existing warrant even though the stop was unlawful.
- Good Faith – Evidence might still be allowed if police officers relied in good faith on a search warrant that later turned out to be invalid.
- Inevitable Discovery – In some cases, officers would have discovered evidence regardless of whether they conducted an unlawful stop or search.
- Attenuation Doctrine – If the connection between the unlawful search and later discovery of evidence is too remote, the evidence might still be admissible under the “attenuation doctrine” pursuant to Wong Sun v. United States (1963).
As the Exclusionary Rule and its many exclusions show, a criminal defense can be extremely complicated. This is why it’s important to discuss your case with an experienced Texas criminal defense lawyer.
About the Author: Mick Mickelsen Dallas based criminal attorney
Mick Mickelsen formed Broden & Mickelsen, LLP in 1998. Mick had represented the accused in state crimes where he has defended clients from white collar crimes, drug trafficking, sexual assault, violent crime, the death penalty and more.
Mr. Mickelsen is also a federal criminal defense attorney and a Dallas criminal appeals attorney, handling the most complex of cases, appeals and post-conviction proceedings. He is certified by the Texas Bar of Legal Specialization in criminal law and criminal appellate law.