Something Little — like a Traffic Stop — Can Lead to a Major Arrest

October 1st, 2018 by Attorney Dan Carman

Something Little -- like a Traffic Stop -- Can Lead to a Major Arrest

A Kentucky police officer can pull you over for something minor, like a burnt out taillight or the fact that your license plate isn’t lit. These are just small issues, and the officer is putting in time and effort just for a taillight … or is he? Maybe he’s on the lookout for something more important, something bigger and better that will make him look good to his boss.

A police officer is like a hunting dog looking for big game. That taillight is just a scent that gets his attention. It gives the officer a reasonable suspicion that the law may have been broken, so your vehicle can be legally pulled over. (To determine whether a suspicion was reasonable, according to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, a court shouldn’t look at whether the officer has a hunch, but rather “to the specific reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience.”) Once your vehicle is pulled over, the hunt begins.

Are you acting like you’re intoxicated or on drugs? Do you smell of alcohol or drugs? Are there any weapons, drugs or drug paraphernalia visible? Is anyone in the car acting suspicious? The officer will run your license plate to see if the vehicle is stolen. Your identity will be checked to see if there’s a warrant for your arrest.

Because of your constitutional rights to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, generally your car can’t be legally searched without a warrant or without your consent (evidence obtained by an illegal search shouldn’t be used by the prosecution if you’re arrested). But there are many exceptions to this rule:

  • If there appears to be evidence of a crime (like drugs or weapons) in “plain view,” it gives an officer the ability to search your car in all areas under a person’s control or reach.
  • What the officer sees may also give him probable cause (enough facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe the charge is true) to suspect that a crime occurred, which can be the basis for a vehicle search, including storage areas and the trunk.
  • There can be a vehicle search incident to your arrest.
  • An exigent search can take place if the officer thinks you’ll destroy evidence of a crime.
  • If the officer reasonably believes a search is necessary for his own protection, he can search for weapons in your car.

An officer can seek a search warrant. He would need to show probable cause to suspect a crime has been committed before a judge should sign one.

You could stay in your car even if the officer asks you to get out, but there’s not much point to that. It will just escalate the situation and the hunt will become more intense. If you’re asked to identify yourself, do so; but if questions are asked, refuse, citing your constitutional right to have an attorney present during questioning.

If you or a family member had a simple traffic stop turn into an arrest, you need a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and your future. Contact us today so you can discuss your situation with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, Kentucky-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation.