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Investigative Car Stops......When Are They Legal?

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the United States, a "Terry stop" is a brief detention of a person by the police on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity but short of probable cause to arrest. The name derives from a 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, where it was held that the police may conduct a limited search of a suspect's outer garments for weapons if they have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person may be armed and dangerous. This case provides the legal precedent for the "stop and frisk" procedures in New York City that have recently caused an uproar over their use by officers in minority neighborhoods. How are these detentions analyzed when the police stop and hold a motorist?

A traffic stop is basically a Terry stop since the driver and passengers are "seized" within the meaning of the law. Under federal law, drivers and passengers may be ordered out of a vehicle without additional justification if the officer reasonably believes that they may be armed and dangerous. However, first, the officer must usually personally observe the motorist violate some traffic infraction or have another independent reason for pulling the vehicle over.

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that a highway patrol officer in California had reasonable suspicion to justify stopping a vehicle for suspected drunken driving based solely on a 911 call from an anonymous motorist complaining that the defendant's vehicle had just run her off the road. After the stop, the officer recovered 30 pounds of marijuana from the bed of the defendant's truck. In Prado Navarette v. California, the Court said that a police officer need not have personally witnessed anything suspicious before pulling the driver over to investigate because the totality of the circumstances surrounding the 911 call gave him the justification needed. The dissenters on the Court, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, suggested that the decision will open to the door to abuse and that now all drivers on the road are at risk of having their freedom of movement curtailed.

This case is especially concerning because generally, anonymous tips alone rarely carry sufficient reliability to warrant stopping and questioning someone. In Florida v. J.L., a "bare bones tip" from an anonymous tipster was not enough to support the detention of someone who fit the description of a person with a gun at the location where the caller alleged. Now, if Navarette is followed, one can imagine likely scenarios where pranks or revenge tips could provide the necessary suspicion for an officer to pull over a vehicle.

In New York, the Criminal Procedure Law has essentially codified the holding in Terry, however the New York Constitution, as interpreted by NY courts, generally accords greater protection to individual liberty and privacy than does the Federal Constitution. And recently, NY courts have considerably broadened the scope of conduct that constitutes an impermissible search or seizure. This makes it so important for the encounters between police officers and citizens to be scrutinized for reasonableness from their inception; which in a case like Navarette, means from the initial car stop. We will wait to see if NY courts interpret a case similar to Navarette.

We will address in a future article the circumstances under which police officer may search the interior of a vehicle, including the trunk, without a warrant. If you were detained or arrested in your vehicle, it is important to consult with a Manhattan or Brooklyn defense attorney who is aware of your rights. Your lawyer will review the details of your case and make sure that the law was followed. We will analyze several steps that law enforcement took. Did the officer seize you? Did the officer have grounds for the seizure? Did the officer act within the scope of the seizure? Did the officer have grounds to arrest or search? Did the officer act within the scope of the arrest or search? Violations can lead to a reduction or even dismissal of charges.

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