It’s no secret that if you get pulled over by the police in Washington, D.C., the officer likely has more on his mind than a broken taillight or an illegal turn on red. If police officers observe any traffic infraction, no matter how small, they have the right to pull you over and write you a ticket. And once they have you lawfully pulled over, the police are almost always looking to turn a traffic stop into a full-blown arrest. But despite what many officers might think, making a lawful traffic stop does not give them carte-blanche to investigate matters unrelated to the original purpose of the stop.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made it quite clear that there are limits to what actions a police officer can take during a routine traffic stop. Whether you are pulled over for a DUI, reckless driving, or more minor traffic offense, the investigating officer must diligently pursue his investigation into the alleged traffic violation, and is not permitted to unnecessarily prolong the stop. The tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s “mission”—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop. Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005), and attend to related safety concerns. Since the purpose of the stop is to address the infraction, the stop may “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate that purpose. The authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction should reasonably have been completed.
In a traffic stop for a minor violation, the officer is certainly entitled to make the necessary inquiries needed to investigate the traffic infraction. These inquiries involve checking the driver’s license, proof of registration, and proof of insurance. In addition, the officer may spend the necessary time it takes to determine whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver or any passengers. Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015). But when the officer has completed these tasks and issued the appropriate citation, she no longer has the right to detain the driver and any of the car’s passengers. Moreover, the officer can’t drag his feet in performing the necessary tasks in an effort to see what else pops up during the seizure.
In my recent trial for illegal gun and drug possession, the court determined that the officer who conducted the traffic stop that led to the seizure of the evidence had violated my client’s 4th Amendment rights by illegally extending the traffic stop while officers conducted a comprehensive investigation of the driver and her two passengers. The car that my client was riding in was ostensibly pulled over for having a “medallion” hanging from the rearview mirror. What should have been a quick routine issuing of a ticket for a minor infraction ended with all of the car’s occupants being detained while officers searched the car. The judge in my case determined that the officer did not diligently attend to the purpose of the stop, and instead, launched a fishing expedition for incriminating evidence. It does not matter that incriminating evidence of other crimes was found, because the evidence was illegally obtained. Once the evidence of guns and drugs was suppressed from the government’s case, they had no choice but to dismiss the case against my client.
In my experience, many, if not most judges are reluctant to grant motions to suppress evidence. They favor a trial on the merits of the case, rather than simply throwing out the government’s evidence. It is an extreme remedy, but one that that serves to protect all of us from violations of our cherished Constitutional rights. If you are arrested in Washington, D.C., your criminal defense lawyer should be on the lookout for possible constitutional violations that merit suppression of the evidence against you. While certainly not every case will result in suppression and dismissal, there can be no chance of getting the evidence thrown out without vigorously pursuing any relevant motions. If you have been arrested for any misdemeanor or felony matter in Washington, D.C., contact Jay P. Mykytiuk Trial Attorney for a case evaluation.