It is common for police officers to initiate a traffic stop for one perceived offense only to focus on a more serious offense upon closer inspection. For instance, a driver might be pulled over for a traffic infraction, but then be investigated drug possession if the officer sees or smells something indicating drug use.
This is a perfectly acceptable practice so long as there is a valid reason to initiate the traffic stop in the first place. But police do not have boundless authority to make such calls. In fact, here in New York, there are fairly nuanced rules governing when and why police can pull over a driver. A recent decision by New York’s highest court demonstrates that if a traffic stop is invalid, criminal activity discovered during the stop may need to be thrown out.
The original incident dates back to 2014 and occurred in Buffalo. Although the suspect was driving safely and legally, an automated license plate reader being used by the officer scanned the license plate and issued an alert that the vehicle was listed as impounded. In fact, although the vehicle had recently been impounded, the driver had paid to legally get it out of impound 11 days earlier and the system apparently hadn’t been updated yet.
The alert even told the officer that “no further action should be taken based solely upon this impounded response.” Nonetheless, the officer pulled over the vehicle. During the stop, the officer smelled marijuana, which led to a search of the vehicle, which turned up a gun. The presence of the gun violated a state law prohibiting bearing a gun outside the home.
The criminal case was challenged based on the reason for the traffic stop. The majority opinion for the high court noted that in New York, when an officer wants to make a stop for a traffic infraction (as in this case), he or she needs to meet the evidentiary standard of “probable cause,” which the officer did not meet based solely on the alert from the license plate reader. Because of this finding, the court threw out the indictment against the defendant – nearly six years after the event that led to the charges.
If not for our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, police could pull over drivers for nearly any reason and issue criminal charges based on anything illegal they happened to find. Court rulings like this one reaffirm our Fourth Amendment rights and ensure that the powers of law enforcement remain appropriately limited.