I recently won a pre-trial suppression of evidence hearing in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in a case involving a prolonged police vehicle stop. The case involved an initial vehicle stop for alleged counterfeit inspection stickers. Eventually, the police searched the car and recovered illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia. The suppression court judge determined that the prolonged detention of my client violated her federal Constitutional rights.
Background of the Case
The suppression court judge found that the police exceeded the time permitted to detain the driver and front-seat passenger of the vehicle under the law. The judge concluded that the prolonged detention violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In the following blog post, I will explain how you can tell if the police have violated your constitutional rights due to a prolonged traffic stop by the police.
Skilled Representation in PA Cases Involving Illegal Traffic Stops
I have over a decade of experience providing skilled representation to individuals charged with Pennsylvania crimes after police vehicle stops in Bucks County, Montgomery County, and the surrounding Pennsylvania Counties. In most cases, the police will file more serious criminal charges after stopping a driver for a minor PA traffic offense. These traffic stop-related crimes include:
Common PA Crimes Resulting from Traffic Stops
- Possession of a controlled substance
- Possession of drug paraphernalia
- Driving under the influence of alcohol
- Driving under the influence of a controlled substance
- Illegal possession of a firearm
Contact me at (215) 752-5282 for a free initial consultation or fill out the confidential contact form for an immediate response.
Facts of the Bucks County Traffic Stop Case
A police officer in a marked patrol car conducted a traffic stop of a driver and a front-seat passenger in Southampton, PA. My client was the front-seat passenger in the vehicle. The driver parked the car in the parking lot of a doctor’s office after the patrol officer activated his overhead lights.
At the same time, the police officer positioned his vehicle directly behind the driver’s vehicle. The patrol car remained behind the driver’s vehicle for the entire encounter satisfying the legal standard for a “seizure” under Pennsylvania law.
The Initial Police Encounter
The police officer got out of his vehicle spoke to the driver and the passenger, who remained seated. The driver and the car passenger provided personal identification, vehicle registration, and insurance information to the police officer. Both the driver and passenger denied knowing that the inspection sticker was fraudulent.
The Traffic Investigation Turns into a Criminal Investigation
The police officer returned to his patrol car to verify the occupant’s license, registration, and insurance status. Everything checked out as proper. Before completing the traffic ticket investigation, he completed the following tasks:
- Ran a criminal history of the driver and front-seat passenger
- Contacted a police officer in another township for criminal information about the occupants
Within minutes, the police officer in the neighboring township contacted the officer at the scene of the car stop. That police officer advised the officer on the scene that the driver and front-seat passenger had a history of criminal arrests and criminal investigations. The police subsequently removed the driver and front-seat passenger from the car.
The Police Search of the Vehicle
Next, the police searched the vehicle and seized heroin, drug packaging, and plastic tubes with drug residue. As a result, the police charged my client with possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of a counterfeit inspection sticker. I filed a Motion to Suppress Evidence before the trial date in the Bucks County Justice Center.
The United States Supreme Court case of Rodriguez v. United States
In the 2015 case of Rodriguez v. United States, the United States Supreme Court declared that the police violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution when they extend the duration of a traffic stop investigation without possessing probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a crime.
The Circumstances in Rodriguez v. United States
In Rodriguez, the police stopped the driver for a minor traffic offense. The police completed the traffic investigation and detained the driver while until a backup police officer arrived. The police subsequently conducted a canine sniff of the vehicle resulting in the discovery of methamphetamine.
The United States Supreme Court declared that the detention of the driver and search of the vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment of The United States Constitution. The Justices in Rodriguez concluded that the police did not have a lawful reason for the continued detention of the driver or the search of the vehicle using a drug sniffing dog.
The Rodriguez Court went on to describe the tasks permitted during a police traffic investigation, including:
- Checking the driver’s license
- Searching for outstanding warrants
- Confirming proof of vehicle insurance
- Confirming the vehicle registration
In the Rodriguez case, the court ruled that the police officer’s justification for the driver’s detention ended as soon as the tasks related to the traffic stop had finished.
What the Rodriguez Ruling Means when You are Stopped for a Traffic Offense
The Rodriguez Court declared that once the police complete the mission of the traffic stop, absent probable cause or reasonable suspicion, the driver’s detention must end, and the driver must be permitted to leave. The Rodriguez Court further stated that without reasonable suspicion of a crime, the police could not prolong the traffic investigation to conduct any of the following acts:
- Run a criminal history check of a driver or passenger
- Conduct a canine sniff of the car
- Contact another law enforcement agency for criminal history information
- Detain and question the driver about illegal contraband in the vehicle
How is Reasonable Suspicion of a Crime Determined by the Courts?
In determining whether the police have established reasonable suspicion of a crime, the state and federal courts will examine the following factors:
- The totality of the circumstances of the incident; and
- Specific and articulable facts, and
- Rational inferences from those facts that point to the conclusion that:
- The person is engaged in criminal activity
- It cannot be a hunch
How I Won the Case
During the pre-trial hearing, the police officer testified that the driver and front-seat passenger displayed nervous verbal, and physical behavior during his initial contact with them. Significantly, the police officer conceded that the allegedly suspicious behavior occurred before he conducted the criminal history check and communication with the police officer in the neighboring township.
The Prosecution Argument
The prosecutor did not argue that the police officer had probable cause to believe that the car’s occupants had committed a crime when he diverted his investigation from the traffic citation. Instead, he claimed that the police officer was justified in delaying the traffic investigation because he had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on the behavior of the car’s occupants.
Finally, the prosecutor asserted that the nervous behavior of occupants of the car created a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct, justifying the delay in the traffic violation investigation.
My Argument that Suppression of Evidence Should be Granted
I successfully argued that the alleged suspicious behavior by the driver and the front-seat passenger was not sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Furthermore, the judge agreed and ruled that the communication with the neighboring police officer and criminal history check of the driver and front-seat passenger unlawfully extended the traffic stop.
The judge concluded that the subsequent search and seizure of illegal drugs and contraband from the vehicle was the result of an unlawful investigative detention of the driver and passenger of the vehicle
In the Rodriguez case, the United States Supreme Court has placed specific limits on how long the police can detain you after a traffic stop for a motor vehicle code violation. The police must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a crime under the following circumstances:
- When the police deviate from the mission of the traffic stop investigation even minimally, before its completion; or
- When the police complete the investigation of the traffic charge and begin a criminal investigation
Proven Experience in Traffic Stop Cases in PA
I have over a decade of experience providing skilled legal representation to individuals charged with crimes related to police traffic stops in Bucks County, Montgomery County, and the surrounding Pennsylvania Counties. Those crimes include traffic violations, driving under the influence of alcohol, driving under the influence of drugs, drug possession, and firearm possession. Contact me at (215) 752-5282 for a free initial consultation or fill out the confidential contact form for an immediate response.