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HOW TO HANDLE A TRAFFIC STOP

Introduction

In Illinois police have the power to stop motorists for a variety of reasons. The motorist is then asked to produce various documents: a driver’s license to prove the legal right to drive; proof of insurance to protect persons the driver might injure; and a registration card showing ownership of the vehicle in question. If the police officer has probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed-such as driving under the influence of alcohol, possession of narcotics, or possession of a firearm by a convicted felon-he may search the vehicle. A police officer can also demand that the driver submit to a sobriety test. If the driver refuses, he or she will be arrested. The driver will also be arrested if found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Traffic Stops and Motorists’ Rights

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects against unauthorized searches and seizures of persons and property. The Supreme Court has determined that the stopping of a motorist by the police constitutes a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. Yet the Fourth Amendment protection for a motorist is less than that for a person in his or her home because cars are easily moved. If the police had to secure a warrant to search a car, by the time they did so, the vehicle could have been moved or left their jurisdiction. The motorist does have some Fourth Amendment protection, however. The police are not permitted to stop and search a vehicle with no probable cause. They may use roadblocks to catch drunk drivers and can search vehicles pulled over for a routine traffic stop if something they observe is in plain view indicates probable cause of a crime-such as narcotics, an open alcohol container, or a firearm in the possession of a convicted felon. They can also stop and search a vehicle if they believe it was used in a crime, or someone within the vehicle is wanted in connection with a crime.

In a routine traffic stop, the motorist is pulled over for violating some traffic law and may be issued a citation. The motorist has the right to contest the ticket. A minor traffic ticket is not a serious crime that has long-lasting implications on one’s driving record. If the traffic offense is a serious one that might result in high fine, the loss of one’s license, or a dramatic increase in one’s insurance premiums, it may be worth it to hire an attorney to fight the ticket. If it is the driver’s only offense or the only one within the last year, Illinois may offer supervision whereby the infraction is removed from the driver’s record after a nominal period, provided the driver has no further driving infractions.

Of greater significance, and posing greater risk to the driver, is a more invasive stop. Any number of factors can lead a police officer to search the driver or his vehicle. Indication that some crime other than a traffic violation has occurred will trigger a search, as can something that suggests the officer’s personal safety may be at risk. This can involve a visible or apparent firearm, evidence of intoxication, narcotics, the presence of stolen property, or indication that the vehicle is stolen. Absent some justifiable reason to detain the motorist beyond the purpose of the original stop, courts have held that the officer must allow the motorist to leave or it becomes an illegal detention.

To stop a car that has not violated any traffic law, police must have some reasonable suspicion that the vehicle or its occupants have violated the law. Law enforcement agents will often stop vehicles that they believe contain narcotics. These stops must have some legal justification. The race of the driver is not a valid justification and a stop made on the basis of race alone is illegal. Officers whose suspicions are race motivated, however, will offer some other reason for initiating the stop. Such fabricated or “pretextual” reasons for making a stop violate the Fourth Amendment. The stop must not be unreasonable under the circumstances.

Police have the right to set up checkpoints for a variety of purposes, including checking for drunk drivers, safety violations, vehicle insurance or seat belt violations. Typically these stops must minimize the delay to the drivers and be conducted in an evenhanded or random manner. They should not be a pretext to detain motorists in the hope of finding evidence of some other crime.

Obviously, the best way to avoid legal trouble in your car is to obey the law and drive with caution to avoid an accident. Using illegal drugs or driving with an open container of alcohol is an invitation to law enforcement officials to arrest you. Moreover, the blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .08 that constitutes legal intoxication is relatively low. Many people will exceed this limit before they might consider themselves drunk. The relatively low BAC of .08 is designed to protect other drivers, pedestrians and property.

Sometimes even careful drivers get pulled over. In that situation, you want the traffic stop to proceed as smoothly and painlessly as possible. In the event of a traffic stop, the following suggestions may help the situation go smoothly:

Be relaxed and polite. It is a police officer’s job to detect and stop criminal activity, acting nervous or being confrontational could make the traffic stop more difficult.

Carry your license, insurance and registration information with you every time you drive. Your inability to prove that you can drive or that you have a right to drive the vehicle in question may lead to further detention and questioning.

Don’t drink before you drive.

Don’t carry illegal narcotics on your person or in your car. Drug laws in Illinois are very strict and possession charges, especially where the quantity is large, can lead to a long prison term. If a person with narcotics wants a ride, tell him or her to dispose of the drugs first.

Conclusion

Common sense is a driver’s best friend. Obeying traffic laws, avoiding illegal activity, and carefully monitoring alcohol consumption are the best protection against legal trouble. Sometimes, however, the police overstep their bounds, issuing citations, making arrests, or conducting searches or seizures that are not supported by law. In those events, motorists have a right to challenge police conduct. A charge of drunk driving, illegal narcotics or firearms possession, or the threat of a lost license can create serious problems. In these situations a driver is well advised to seek competent legal counsel.

The Law Offices of Jonathan L. Carbary, Ltd. has been representing motorists in DUI and other traffic related matters since 1978.

If you would like help concerning an arrest or seizure involving the use of your car, please contact our offices at 847/888-0919.