Most of us will deal with a traffic stop by a police officer at some point or another in our lifetimes. While traffic stops typically go fairly quickly and painlessly, they have the potential to get messy if the officer finds your behavior disconcerting or suspects that there is something you are hiding. While it is generally good practice to cooperate with officers to ensure that things do not get out of hand, you should also know your rights and what you are and are not required to do when dealing with police at traffic stops. Below, our experienced Salt Lake City traffic ticket lawyer at Overson Law, PLLC walks you through the process of a traffic stop and the laws related to what powers the police have after one is initiated.
How a Traffic Stop in Utah is Initiated
In order for the police to pull you over, they need to have probable cause to believe that you have committed some sort of violation of law. Most of the time this occurs when they observed you committing a traffic offense like speeding or making an illegal turn. If you are driving erratically and the officer suspects you may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that is also grounds for a stop. Probable cause also exists if your vehicle meets the description of a vehicle that was involved in a crime in the area.
A police officer cannot pull you over based on a mere “hunch.” For example, if the officer notices you have several anti-police bumper stickers on your car, and pulls you over because they think the stickers indicate you are a criminal, the court is almost certainly going to find that the stop was illegal and any evidence that resulted from it is inadmissible.
Can a Utah Police Officer Pull You Out of Your Car without Justification?
Once the stop occurs, the officer will standardly begin by asking you to produce you license, vehicle registration, and proof of vehicle insurance. You are required to have all three on you when driving and failure to produce any one of them, even if you left them at home, could result in criminal charges.
Even in seemingly benign situations where you are entirely cooperative with the officers, the officers have the right to ask you to step out of the vehicle. In the 2003 Utah Supreme Court case State v. Warren, the court ruled that due to the “inherent dangerousness” of a traffic stop situation for police officers, the officers are entitled to take certain actions to protect themselves, including ordering the occupants out of the vehicle for the duration of the traffic stop. This can occur even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that the person is dangerous without violating the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
This means that the officers can indeed pull you out of your car for no reason. If you refuse to exit the vehicle, the officers will be permitted to use force to remove you from the vehicle. It is advisable, then, to follow an officer’s orders to exit the vehicle, even if you don’t think it is a reasonable request. According to the Utah Supreme Court, it does not have to be.
What Police Officers Can and Cannot Do During a Utah Traffic Stop
Just because the officers are allowed to make you exit your vehicle does not mean they are given carte blanche to do whatever they want to you during a traffic stop. Once the person has exited the vehicle, the officer is not automatically permitted to conduct a “stop and frisk” search of their person. Rather, the officer must point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the suspect may be armed and presently dangerous.
Generally, the police are not allowed to conduct a warrantless search of your vehicle subsequent to a traffic stop without your consent. You should never consent to an officer searching your vehicle unless they have a clear warrant. Sometimes, the officer may trick you into giving consent by leading you to believe doing otherwise would get you in trouble. The standard for measuring the scope of a suspect’s consent under the Fourth Amendment is that of ‘objective’ reasonableness; that is, what would the typical reasonable person have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect? An experienced Salt Lake City illegal search and seizure lawyer like those at Overson Law, PLLC can challenge the voluntariness of any consent you give under conditions indicating duress.
There are some situations where the police are able to search your vehicle even without consent. One of these is what is known as the “plain view doctrine.” Under the doctrine, if the police see something illegal or potentially dangerous in plain view, they can seize that item. For example, if you have drugs or a gun sitting on your passenger seat when you are pulled over, the plain view doctrine will apply.
The police officer can also conduct a warrantless search if there is probable cause to believe evidence of illegal activity is contained within the vehicle. If the smell of marijuana is emanating from the vehicle, this will be enough to constitute probable cause. Further, if the vehicle meets the description of one that just fled the scene of a bank robbery, this will likely constitute probable cause to conduct a search for evidence of said robbery. However, the permissible length and scope of these searches is often limited, and our Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer can fight any overstepping of the officer’s authority and work to get any evidence coming from an illegal search deemed inadmissible in court.
If You Have Questions Related to an Officer’s Conduct at a Traffic Stop, Call Our Firm Today
It is true that officers have a lot of latitude when it comes to their behavior after a valid traffic stop, including forcing you to exit your vehicle for no discernible reason. However, this does not mean that an experienced traffic stop lawyer like those at Overson Law, PLLC cannot mount a strong defense against a stop that was not conducted using proper protocol. We will challenge the probable cause for the intitial stop, the probable cause for any search, and whether the scope of that search was limited as it should be. If you have had issues at a traffic stop, call our office today at (801) 758-2287.