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What makes a traffic stop illegal?

On Behalf of | Jan 30, 2020 | Criminal Defense

We’re fortunate to live in a country of individual rights and freedoms. Police officers can’t search our homes or vehicles willy-nilly. Nor can they stop us on the road without a valid reason for doing so.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. As a broad principle, it’s easy to understand, but the devil is in the details. What, exactly, constitutes a reasonable search? What amounts to a search or seizure in the first place? The answer, as with much of the law, is that it depends.

“Reasonable articulable suspicion” standard

When it comes to traffic stops, law enforcement must have valid grounds for pulling you over. In legal terms, they must have, at minimum, a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that the driver is breaking the law. Typically, this means observing a traffic violation such as:

  • Improper lane changes
  • Speeding
  • Failing to signal
  • Running a red light
  • Crossing the centerline or shoulder lines
  • Driving with expired plates
  • Driving without working headlights or taillights

An officer might also have grounds to pull a driver over if they’re engaging in erratic behavior, even if that behavior doesn’t technically amount to a traffic violation. Examples include:

  • Weaving
  • Driving too slowly
  • Swerving within the lane

It all depends on the circumstances.

What if the traffic stop was illegal?

Illegal searches and seizures – including traffic stops – are a big deal. Fourth Amendment violations are compelling grounds for challenging criminal charges. If successful, you may be able to get critical evidence thrown out or obtain a dismissal of the charges.

However, disputing the validity of a traffic stop requires strong legal arguments and procedural knowledge. It’s well worth consulting a defense lawyer to examine the issue in more detail.