No one likes seeing the flashing red and blue lights of a police car in their rearview mirror, but traffic stops are relatively common throughout Texas. In fact, almost all drivers have encountered police during a traffic stop at some point in their driving career. Sometimes, police officers have a valid reason to stop a vehicle, while other times, the officer might engage in a wrongful traffic stop.
For a police officer to pull your vehicle over lawfully, they need reasonable suspicion that you committed some traffic violation or violated a rule of the road. For example, an officer can pull you over if you exceed the speed limit or have a tail light out on your vehicle.
Even though most traffic stops and traffic citations are not very serious, it is important to be aware of your legal rights when a police officer stops you. If a Texas court later needs to review the traffic stop, they will look at all of the circumstances. In certain instances, a harmless traffic stop can lead to a full-scale vehicle search, an arrest and other serious consequences. If the police officer uncovers incriminating evidence during their search or if you say something incriminating during the stop, then the officer or a state prosecutor can later use that evidence against you in court.
If you are currently pending a criminal charge, you should have an experienced defense lawyer representing you in your case from beginning to end. A skilled Houston criminal defense attorney at The Law Office of Bryan Fagan can meet with you to discuss the circumstances of your traffic stop, criminal charge or arrest. We can then help you develop a plan for moving forward with your case, including formulating a strong legal defense to your criminal charge. We can also represent you at all court proceedings or help you negotiate a favorable plea deal with the state prosecutor handling your case.
For a free initial consultation and case evaluation with an experienced Houston criminal defense lawyer, please call 281-810-9760 or contact us online to learn more.
Common Reasons for Traffic Stops
Police officers can initiate a traffic stop if they reasonably suspect you have committed or are committing a traffic violation. Police officers commonly initiate traffic stops because drivers:
- Violate a traffic law, such as by exceeding the speed limit or failing to yield the right-of-way to another vehicle or pedestrian at the appropriate time.
- Fail to use their turn signals at the proper time.
- Weave in and out of heavy traffic or back and forth in their travel lane.
- Fail to yield the right-of-way to an emergency vehicle.
- Fail to switch lanes when they see an emergency vehicle stopped on the side of the road.
Police officers can also use minor traffic violations as a pretext to pull a vehicle over. For example, if the officer thinks based on your vehicle’s movements that you are intoxicated or impaired by alcohol, they might use the pretext of a minor traffic violation to pull your vehicle over. During the traffic stop, if they determine you are impaired, they can request that you take a field sobriety test. Poor performance on a field sobriety test can then lead to your arrest for DUI or some other drunk driving offense.
Also, during a traffic stop, if a police officer notices potentially incriminating evidence sitting in plain view inside your vehicle, such as illegal drugs or a firearm they can initiate a search and confiscate that potential evidence from your vehicle.
Although a police officer may engage in pre-textual traffic stops, they may not engage in random traffic stops. In fact, if an officer stops you randomly and uncovers incriminating evidence during the stop, you can use that Fourth Amendment violation as a legal defense to your criminal charge in court.
Police Can Check for Weapons During a Traffic Stop
There are certain things police officers can and cannot do during a lawful traffic stop. When a police officer pulls you over, the officer can ask you to exit your vehicle. In fact, some officers believe asking you to do so is the safer option for them. Just because the officer asks you to exit your vehicle does not necessarily mean that they have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to search you.
For a police officer to search your person during a traffic stop, they must have some concern for their safety. For example, if the officer observes something on your person appears to be a weapon or if the officer believes your mannerisms are suspicious they can perform a weapons search. However, the officer must perform their weapons search on a limited basis. During the search, they can only look for weapons by doing a cursory pat down of your outer clothing. If the officer uncovers something that feels like a weapon during this pat down, they may retrieve the object from your person.
During the stop, a police officer can also ask you if you have weapons or drugs in your vehicle. Despite what the officer might say, you do not need to reply to that question. If you are still standing outside your vehicle at that time, the officer should have no reason to look inside your vehicle. However, if you admit to the officer that you have something illegal inside your car or provide your express consent for them to search your car then any potential evidence they uncover can be used against you in court.
Determining If You Have an Outstanding Warrant
When a police officer initiates a proper traffic stop, they can take steps to determine if you have one or more outstanding warrants. A judge will issue a warrant if you do not pay a traffic citation and for other far more serious crimes. During a traffic stop, the officer can check your warrant status by running your name through their computer system or by calling a dispatcher. The officer also has a right to ask to see your driver’s license. The officer will then scan your license and make sure it is valid.
Finally, police officers have a right to detain a driver for a reasonable period of time, allowing the officer to make the necessary calls and checks.
When Can Police Officers Extend a Traffic Stop?
For a police officer to lawfully continue a traffic stop beyond this initial check period, they must have a good reason. If your license is valid and you do not have any outstanding warrants issued against you, the officer can issue you a warning or a ticket. If the officer issues you a citation, they will ask you to sign it. At that point, you should ordinarily be free to go.
However, at that point, many police officers will ask the driver for consent to search their vehicle. A driver should not consent to a police search under any circumstances. After all, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects drivers from unreasonable and unduly intrusive searches and seizures. Therefore, by not consenting to a vehicle search, you are fully exercising your Fourth Amendment rights.
Additionally, you should refuse to allow police to search your car because that search could extend to anywhere in your vehicle. Police officers can search in the trunk, glove compartment, back seat and any other area they choose. They do not have an obligation to return your vehicle to you in the same condition as they find it. Also, if they come across incriminating evidence during their search, they can confiscate it. A state prosecutor can then use that evidence against you in court if your case proceeds to trial.
What to Say or Not Say During a Traffic Stop
During a police traffic stop, there are certain things you should say but more importantly, things you should not say. You need to provide a police officer with basic information, such as your name and address. You must also show the officer your driver’s license and car registration if they ask to see those documents.
At all times during a traffic stop, you should treat the officer with respect and be respectful with your language. After all, treating a police officer with contempt or disrespect is not going to help you or your case in any way.
However, if a police officer asks to search your car, you should politely decline. If a police officer makes an arrest and starts to question you, you should politely refuse to answer the questions until such time as legal counsel is present. If you volunteer information, that information can be used against you by a state prosecutor if your case later proceeds to trial.
Potential Fifth Amendment Violations
Based on to the Fifth Amendment in the United States Constitution, drivers have a legal right against self-incrimination. Therefore, if a police officer arrests you during a traffic stop and advises you of your rights, they must inform you of your right to the presence of legal counsel during police questioning.
If the police officer starts questioning you about whether you had anything to drink or how much you had to drink, you do not need to answer that question.
Instead, you should insist upon the presence of legal counsel during any questioning. If the officer continues to question you and you say something incriminating, then that incriminating statement could be subject to suppression if your case goes to trial.
Also, under the Fifth Amendment, criminal defendants have a constitutional right against self-incrimination. Therefore, they do not need to take the witness stand in court or testify at trial in defense of their charge.
Potential Defenses If Your Criminal Case Proceeds to Trial
If your criminal case proceeds to a bench or jury trial, your lawyer can assert one or more legal defenses on your behalf. Those defenses will depend on the circumstances of your arrest, the nature of your criminal charge and the basis for the charge.
In a criminal case, the state prosecutor has the sole legal burden of proof. You, as the criminal defendant, do not need to prove anything in the case. If the prosecutor fails to establish even one element of the underlying charge, they fail to satisfy their legal burden. In some instances, this failure may result in a dismissal of the criminal charge or of the entire criminal case.
If a police officer initiated an improper traffic stop or violated your right against self-incrimination, you can allege constitutional violations as a defense to your charge. Moreover, in a DUI case, you can allege that the breathalyzer machine that the police officer used to calculate your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was defective in some way. Finally, if the officer asked you to perform a field sobriety test at the scene, you may allege that you suffered from a medical condition that prevented you from passing the test, such as a vision or balance problem.
If you are currently pending a criminal charge stemming from a police traffic stop, we can help you determine which of these defenses you can allege at your criminal court trial.
Contact an Experienced Houston Criminal Defense Attorney About Your Charge Today
At The Law Office of Bryan Fagan, we are ready to assist you with every aspect of defending your criminal charge. From the beginning of your case until the end, we will take measures to safeguard your legal rights and ensure that the government and others do not infringe upon them. We can also represent you at all courtroom proceedings, including hearings and trials and pursue the best possible result in your case. At your trial, we can help you advance a powerful defense or in the alternative, negotiate a fair plea deal with the state prosecutor on your behalf.
For a free case evaluation and legal consultation with an experienced Houston criminal defense lawyer, please call 281-810-9760 or contact us online for more information.