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When can police stops be performed?

The requirements police need to meet before they can legally stop you

When making police stops, law enforcement officers must abide by the law. Police officials can't pull you over for driving a car of a certain color or for entering a neighborhood with frequent criminal activity.

However, police officers have significant leeway when deciding when and why to stop you. The key terms to remember are "reasonable suspicion" and "probable cause."

Reasonable suspicion

Police officers have the right to pull you over if they have reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime. For instance, if a police officer uses radar to gauge your speed and determines that you're driving 30 miles per hour over the limit, a traffic stop might result. Other behaviors that could meet the standard of reasonable suspicion include the following:

  • Failing to stop at a stop sign or red light
  • Weaving between lanes
  • Not using your turn signal
  • Not wearing a seatbelt
  • Leaving the scene of an accident
  • Having broken lights or other safety issues with your vehicle

Officers can also pull you over if they receive a tip from another citizen that leads them to believe you broke a law.

For example, after a hit-and-run accident, the victim might describe a vehicle and its driver to police officers. If you or your car fit that description, the police may make a traffic stop.

However, reasonable suspicion requires specifics. If the victim of a hit-and-run accident identifies a red car as the perpetrating vehicle, the police probably can't pull you over because you happen to drive a red car.

A more specific description, such as a "red late-model sedan with front-end damage and a university bumper sticker," could meet reasonable suspicion criteria.

What qualifies as reasonable suspicion can vary from one state to another. If you think your stop might not have been legal, consider talking to a local traffic lawyer.

Probable cause

Some police stops become more serious after the police officer communicates with the driver. If the officer notices the smell of alcohol or sees illegal drugs in the car, it could lead to an arrest. However, police officers cannot make an arrest unless they have probable cause.

Speeding and seat-belt violations don't usually lead to an arrest, so the officer will have to note other criminal activity. Examples of situations that might give a police officer probable cause could include the following:

  • Driving on a suspended license: If the officer runs your name and discovers that you don't have a valid license, you could be arrested.

  • Illegal possessions: Drugs, guns, open alcohol containers, or other contraband could cause an arrest.

  • Intoxication: The officer might suspect you of intoxication and conduct a field sobriety test.

  • A stolen car: If the officer determines that you're driving a stolen car, you'll find yourself under arrest.

Sobriety checkpoints

Some police stops don't single you out specifically. A sobriety checkpoint means that law enforcement stops everyone driving down a particular road at a certain time.

Most jurisdictions allow sobriety checkpoints. However, police officers have to follow specific rules, including:

  • Using a set standard for stopping cars and interviewing drivers, such as every third car

  • Taking safety precautions, such as using adequate lighting

  • Identifying the roadblock as a sobriety checkpoint

A few states have banned DUI checkpoints entirely, while others have additional requirements.

Drug checkpoints

Unlike sobriety checkpoints, law enforcement officers are not allowed to set up drug checkpoints. This is true regardless of the state.

However, some less-scrupulous police departments sometimes use signs indicating a checkpoint (which does not actually exist) to mislead drivers. Police officers assume that if someone turns around after seeing such a sign, that person may have drugs or other contraband in the car.

Border checkpoints

The exception to these rules is border crossings. When you cross the border into another country, you consent to a search. US Customs agents can legally search your car and your possessions, and they don't need reasonable suspicion or probable cause. If you don't agree to these terms, you simply can't cross the border.

Knowing your rights can keep you from making mistakes during individual stops or at checkpoints. If you believe you've been the victim of illegal police stops, consult an attorney with traffic law experience to help you defend yourself in court or get your citation dismissed.

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