Traffic Stop

(Reprinted with the permission of the Alameda District Attorney’s Office)
Whren v. United States (1996)517US_(135L.Ed.2d89)

ISSUE: When officers observe a traffic violation can they make a traffic stop if their primary motivation is to investigate some other crime?

FACTS Two plainclothes vice officers with the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department were on patrol in an unmarked car in a “high drug area” when they passed a Pathfinder truck that was stopped at a stop sign. They were somewhat suspicious of the truck because the driver “was looking down into the lap of the passenger at his right,” and the driver remained stopped for “an unusually long time – more than 20 seconds.”

When the officers made a U-turn intending to go back toward the Pathfinder, the driver “turned suddenly” to his right without signaling and sped off at an “unreasonable” speed. The officers then made a traffic stop, approached the two occupants and identified themselves as police officers. At this point, one of the officers saw two large plastic bags containing crack cocaine on the passenger’s lap. Both men were arrested and charged with various federal drug offences.

DISCUSSION In Whren, the United States Supreme Court ruled on a question that has troubled officers, prosecutors, and judges for many years: Are pretext traffic stops unlawful?

The term “pretext stop” commonly refers to a car stop for a minor traffic violation when the stop was motivated by an officer’s desire to investigate a crime for which grounds to detain did not exist. In other words, the officer is using the traffic violation to justify a detention of the car’s occupants.

It would certainly appear the traffic stop in Whren fell into this category. In most jurisdictions, vice officers do not usually enforce minor traffic violations. In fact, the stop was in violation of the officers’ departmental regulations, which prohibit plainclothes officers from making traffic stops unless the violation was “so grave as to pose an immediate threat to the safety of others.” Thus, the Court did not seem to dispute the defendants’ contention that the stop was, in fact, pretextual.

In asking the Court to severely restrict pretext stops, the defendants claim that restrictions are necessary to prevent widespread abuse. They noted there were so many traffic and equipment regulations on the books that virtually ever driver on the road is now, or soon will be, violating at least one of them. According to the defendants, “This creates the temptation to use traffic stops as a means of investigating other law violations, as to which no probable cause or even articulable suspicion exists.”

Consequently, the defendants urged the Court to adopt a rule invalidating traffic stops unless a reasonable officer in the same circumstances would have made the stop. In other words, officers would not be permitted to make a traffic stop merely because they had observed a traffic violation. Instead, they would have to prove that a reasonable officer-following standard police practices-would have done so.

The Court pointed out the practical difficulties of applying such a test. For one thing, traffic enforcement practices vary depending on the jurisdiction and time of day. Furthermore, it would require judges to engage in the mind numbing process of “speculating about the hypothetical reaction of a hypothetical constable.”

So the Court rejected the idea, ruling that the lawfulness of a traffic stop depends simply on whether the officer observed a traffic violation. Said the Court, “Here the District Court found that the officers had probably cause to believe that petitioners had violated the traffic code. That rendered the stop reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Consequently, the officer’s subjective desire to investigate another crime was irrelevant.

DA’S COMMENT Although Whren gives offices the right to stop a car for a traffic violation regardless of the officer’s motivation, it does not give the officers the right to prolong the stop for the purpose of investigation of an unrelated crime. This means an officer who makes a traffic stop-pretext or otherwise-must generally limit his or her activities to those necessary to investigate the traffic violation.

Of course, if at some point during the stop the officer develops grounds to detain or arrest an occupant for some other crime, the officer may take the appropriate action. This was what happened in Whren when the officers saw drugs in the passenger compartment.

Published by: Beau Ambur, Graf-X ’97 All Rights Reserved

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