The Facts About Traffic Stops

Thomas Jeter • December 29, 2014

The Facts About Traffic Stops

In 2009, two men were pulled over on a North Carolina highway after law enforcement noticed the vehicle had a broken taillight. The police then conducted a search of the vehicle and found cocaine. The state’s rules dictate that just one broken taillight is not an offense, and the officer should have never pulled over the car. Recently, however, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld that the cocaine was admissible as evidence, because the officer’s mistake was reasonable.

The incident puts a spotlight on a hot topic regarding when law enforcement can stop a vehicle and when they cannot. Understanding the difference is key to protecting your rights.

Searching Your Vehicle

The Fourth Amendment is designed to protect citizens from unreasonable searches, which is why law enforcement must have probable cause to believe you have broken a law before pulling you over. There are a number of reasons law enforcement may give as probable cause, including the following:

  • A vehicle is speeding
  • A vehicle has broken taillights or headlights
  • A vehicle is following too closely

Without probable cause, members of law enforcement are not permitted to stop your car and start searching it.

Prevent an Unnecessary Stop

Law enforcement can cite just about anything in order to pull you over, so it is a good idea not to give them reason. In addition to obeying the law, make sure that your inspection and registration are up to date and you have placed those stickers in the appropriate place. You should check that your license place are properly fixed and readable, and make sure that the lights on your vehicle are all working properly as well.

Modifications to your car can also draw unwarranted attention. Tinted windows, loud exhaust pipes or other borderline illegal changes could cause law enforcement to keep an eye on you. Similarly, driving with a vehicle that has unrepaired body damage could result in a traffic stop.

 Looking Ahead

As one dissenting Supreme Court justice wrote in her opinion, the North Carolina ruling could set precedent for law enforcement to further blur the lines on when they can pull over vehicles. While another justice noted that the ruling should only be used in rare circumstances in which existing laws are not clear, it is still important that drivers remain vigilant and are aware of their rights.

Our attorneys at Nosal & Jeter, LLP understand North Carolina and South Carolina traffic laws and stay abreast of changes. We know that drivers are sometimes pulled over unnecessarily, resulting in expensive tickets and fines. We can help you fight a citation and prevent the headaches and costs associated with an unwarranted stop.

Source: North Country Public Radio, “Supreme Court Upholds North Carolina Traffic Stop,” Dec. 15, 2014