Traffic stops or something that nobody wants to experience. Seeing those blue lights pop up behind you can be terrifying. In truth, traffic stops are an important part of a law enforcement officer’s job. Even though most traffic stops are relatively routine and only result in warnings or minor citations being issued, major crimes have been uncovered during the course of traffic stops in Pennsylvania. Here, we want to discuss the very basics of traffic stops in the Commonwealth. In particular, we want to discuss what happens after a vehicle is stopped and how far a police officer can go to investigate alleged crimes.
The Initial Traffic Stop and Probable Cause
Traffic stops usually occur after a person has allegedly violated some sort of motor vehicle code in Pennsylvania. This could include speeding, failing to yield the right of way, equipment malfunction, running a red light, etc.
This traffic code violation gives the law enforcement officer probable cause to stop the vehicle, and they do have the right to do so. When a car stop is initiated, the police officer is allowed to investigate the violation and question the driver about the offense. As long as a police officer’s attention is focused on the initial reason for the traffic stop, they can continue to question the driver and even order them out of the vehicle in the course of issuing a citation.
However, if an officer continues to question an individual they have stopped beyond the purpose of the initial traffic stop, the officer needs to have reasonable suspicion to support the ongoing stop and investigation.
Continued Questioning and Reasonable Suspicion
After the reason for the initial stop is over with, that would typically mean that a person is free to leave. However, if an officer continues to question an individual, then that driver has to presume that they are not free to leave.
So, what does it mean for a police least officer to have reasonable suspicion in order to give them the right to continue the investigation beyond the initial traffic stop?
In Pennsylvania, reasonable suspicion is based not only on the police officer’s observations, but also the officer’s knowledge and length of experience in their position. The courts in Pennsylvania will evaluate reasonable suspicion based on a relatively objective standard. The courts will look at what facts were available to the officer at the moment of the interaction that would have caused the officer to reasonably believe that any further police action was needed to investigate a possible crime. In court-speak, this is referred to as the “totality of the circumstances.”
Reasonable suspicion cannot just be a hunch or a guess. Pennsylvania courts have found that reasonable suspicion does not exist simply because a driver appears nervous. However, reasonable suspicion will exist if an officer hears or smells something that, based on their experience and training, could be considered contraband.
The second round of questioning beyond the initial traffic stop could include the officer asking to search the vehicle. A police officer may even ask to search a vehicle when they do not have reasonable suspicion. Any evidence found doing a search conducted without reasonable suspicion or a search warrant will not be admissible. However, a driver’s consent to search a vehicle allows the officer to bypass the need for a search warrant.
Traffic stops can be nerve-wracking. Even though stops typically end after a police officer issues a citation, these stops can lead to more serious criminal violations. If you have been arrested after being stopped by the police in your vehicle, you need to speak to a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An attorney can examine the facts of your case and begin to build a solid defense on your behalf.