Were You Illegally Stopped? Understanding Reasonable Suspicion

 In Criminal, Versus Texas Criminal Law Blog

Were you illegally stopped?

Police officers often joke that if they cannot find a legal reason to stop your vehicle within 200 yards, then they are not doing a good job. To understand if you were illegally stopped, let’s first look at legal stops in Texas. There are two basic types of legal stops in Texas — those with warrants and those without.

Stops without a warrant

Police officers can temporarily detain you and your vehicle in several ways: a consensual encounter, reasonable suspicion, and probable cause. Let’s break down all three.

Consensual (Voluntary) Encounter

A voluntary encounter occurs when a police officer approaches you in a public place, whether in your vehicle or not, to ask you questions. Unless the officer requires you to answer his or her questions, you are not protected under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable seizure. In other words, an officer can ask you anything they want for as long as they want because, as far as the law is concerned, you are not detained.

What does that mean? Not being detained means you are free to refuse to answer their questions, free to walk away, and free drive away. How do you know whether you are engaging in a voluntary encounter or are legally detained? A few simple questions directed at the officer will give you the answer. First ask, “Do I have to answer your questions?”  If not, “Am I free to leave?”  Sometimes these questions are already answered for you by the officer’s actions.  Some good indicators you are not free to leave are the use of an officer’s overhead red and blue lights, use of a siren, or physical indication by the officer for you to pull over or stop.  If you are free to leave, then leave.  Once you do, an officer must come up with a legal reason to stop you and require your compliance.

If you choose to stay and answer an officer’s questions, you may be giving him or her reasonable suspicion to legally detain you.  For example, if an officer engages you in a voluntary encounter by asking your name and where you are headed, he or she may hear slurred speech (a sign of intoxication) or smell an odor of marijuana (a sign of marijuana possession) or see an open container of alcohol in your vehicle (a criminal offense).  Now, they have reasonable suspicion to detain you further. Before you think you have nothing to hide, remember there have been passengers in your vehicle, other drivers, or previous owners who may have left something behind that could now get you in trouble. There are endless possibilities; the only way to avoid them all is to exercise your right to leave.

Reasonable Suspicion

What happens if your encounter with the police is not voluntary?  An officer pulls behind you, lights up his red and blues, and orders you to the side of the road? You have been temporarily detained by law enforcement and are not free to leave; this is called a Terry Stop.  Now the question for your criminal defense attorney becomes, was this stop legal?

For an officer to temporarily detain you, they must have reasonable suspicion a crime has been, is currently, or soon will be committed.  Reasonable suspicion is a set of specific, articulable facts.  It is more than a hunch or guess, but less than probable cause.  In fact, reasonable suspicion is one of the lowest standards of proof in the criminal legal system.  As such, it does not require proof that any unlawful conduct actually occurred before an officer can temporarily detain you.  Out of the ordinary actions that are simply related to a crime may be sufficient.  For example, you may be stopped for weaving within you lane at 2 a.m., just after leaving a bar.  None of those things themselves are against the law, but all together could give an officer reasonable suspicion that you are driving while intoxicated and stop you to investigate.

An investigative detention is reasonable only if the officer has “specific articulable facts,” which, premised upon the officer’s experience and personal knowledge and coupled with the logical inferences from those facts, warrant the intrusion on the detainee. The officer “must be able to articulate something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.”

Because traffic offenses are crimes in the state of Texas, you can be legally detained under the suspicion of violating just one.  There are hundreds, even thousands, of traffic offense for which you can be stopped.  For example, an officer observes your vehicle in his rearview mirror traveling at a high rate of speed.  Just as he looks down at his speedometer and sees his vehicle is going 49 mph in a 50mph zone, you speed by him.  He doesn’t have to confirm your speed with his radar or laser (LIDAR) equipment.  Based upon his training and experience, all he has to do is suspect that you are traveling over the speed limit due to his observations.  That is enough for a temporary legal detention.

Once you have been legally detained an officer can request several things of you. First they can ask a series of questions, which may include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) Where are you coming from? (2) Where are you headed? (3) Have had anything to drink? (4) How many drinks? (5) What time was your last drink?  Second, they can request for you to complete several tasks: (1) Request you to provide your license or another form of identification to run you for outstanding warrants (2) Request you to provide your license, insurance, and registration, and (3) Request you exit the vehicle.  At this point in an investigation, an officer can build a case against you without warning you of your rights.  As such, everything you do or say can be used against you in court.

Is it possible for your temporary detention by police to be illegal?  Absolutely.  An experienced criminal defense attorney in your local community can file a Motion to Suppress and fight the legality of your stop.  A Motion to Suppress asks the court presiding over your case to review the facts surrounding your detention and rule on its legality.  The presiding judge will look at all of the facts surrounding your temporary detention and decide whether the officer’s actions were reasonable; this is called reviewing the totality of the circumstances.  It is important to note that the judge may only consider facts the officer knew at the time of your stop and not facts obtained later down the road.

If your Motion to Suppress is granted, then all of the evidence obtained after your stop will be inadmissible in court.  Though the State has the right to appeal this decision to a higher court, an upheld Motion to Suppress will dispose of your case in its entirety, resulting in a dismissal and possible expunction or nondisclosure from your record. If the Motion to Suppress is denied, then your case will proceed as normal unless a decision is made to appeal the court’s decision to the court of appeals.

However, even if you have been legally, temporarily detained, a situation can escalate, with the passage of time, and require an officer to have probable cause to continue an investigation.

Probable Cause

Sometimes an officer’s observations of a person’s behavior, driving or otherwise, leads to an opinion that is more than reasonable suspicion.  When an officer’s logical investigation discovers facts that would lead a reasonably intelligent and prudent person to believe you have committed a crime they may stop you for further investigation.  This is called probable cause and it is the third main way you may be stopped by law enforcement without a warrant.

Probable cause is a higher standard of proof than reasonable suspicion and, therefore, requires additional evidence. However, because most traffic violations are easily verifiable it is not uncommon for officers to stop you based upon this standard rather than under reasonable suspicion.  For example, if an officer observes (and possibly records) you failing to use a turn signal 100 ft. prior to a turn then he has probable cause to conduct a traffic stop.

Is it possible for you to stopped without probable cause?  Of course!  An experienced criminal defense attorney in your local community can file a Motion to Suppress and fight the legality of the stop.  This motion follows the same procedure as the one previously discussed for challenging reasonable suspicion and just like before the state only has to prove reasonable suspicion for a temporary detention.  Probable cause is a higher standard of proof than reasonable suspicion and would require additional evidence for an arrest, but not for a stop (See our post on probable cause for arrest here).

Can you be stopped for no violation at all?  Yes.  Even if you have not broken a single traffic violation or engaged in suspicious behavior, you may be still be stopped for an outstanding warrant.

Stops with a warrant

If there is a warrant out for your arrest you may be legally detained and arrested at any point, whether you are driving in your car or walking around outside.  When driving, officers may run the license plate of any vehicle you are operating to check for outstanding warrants.  If their in-car system returns with a hit on your license plate, they will confirm the warrant with police dispatch.  In fact, if there is an outstanding warrant for the registered driver of that vehicle, and you, as the driver, resemble the description, you may be stopped whether you have an outstanding warrant or not.

Being stopped for an outstanding warrant that does not necessarily mean you will be immediately arrested.  Once legally detained, an officer may engage in any investigation to develop probable cause for any criminal offense he or she has suspicion you have committed.

Because suspects of Driving While Intoxicated cases are generally stopped while operating a motor vehicle, it is rare for an outstanding warrant to come into play.  However, if have already parked and exited your vehicle, police may use an outstanding warrant to detain you and investigate for signs of intoxication.

Conclusion

Though the officers were joking around, they are ultimately correct.  If an officer cannot find a legal reason to stop you within a few moments of interaction, then they are not doing a good job. However, officers make mistakes and some do not do a good job.  When this happens, you need experienced criminal defense attorneys with trial and negotiating skills to stand between you and the State of Texas: Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Our attorneys have overwhelming experience in this area of the law as proven by their participation in over 100 jury trials, and countless motions to suppress. Only attorneys with this level of experience can give you an honest evaluation of the facts surrounding your encounter with the police.  And only an honest evaluation of your case will help you determine the best outcome; it could be a dismissal, it could be negotiating with a prosecutor to reduce your case to a lesser charge, it could be pleading your case to minimal punishment, or even going to trial and requiring the state to prove their case to a jury.  If you are illegally stopped or illegally arrested in north Texas, do not face the power of the government alone. Call us at (817) 203-2220 or online:


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