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Could a traffic stop without probable cause support an appeal?

If you were arrested for a criminal offense, have you consulted with an attorney about the circumstances leading up to that arrest? Even seemingly impartial police tactics, such as traffic stops, may have vulnerability to a legal challenge.

Specifically, a recent article questions whether traffic stops are racially biased. As background, a police officer generally needs a legal reason to stop a vehicle. Even minor issues, like defective equipment, might satisfy that requirement. An attachment on a license plate or an item hanging from a rear view mirror would technically satisfy that requirement.

Yet there may be many more potential violations than traffic police are able to handle, which opens the door to discretion. Said another way, the cited technical violation may not always match an officer’s motivation for stopping a vehicle. A technical violation might provide an opportunity to look for more serious offenses, such as guns or drugs.

One police chief recently revised his department’s traffic stop criteria after a study revealed that a disproportionate number of minority drivers were being stopped on the ground of defective equipment. The chief decided to de-emphasize technical violations, and instead focus on traffic stops on the grounds of speeding, road safety or traffic violations like running red lights. One year later, as a result of the policy shift, the number of black drivers stopped had dropped by 25 percent, and the overall number of defective equipment stops fell from 19 to 8 percent of all stops.

Notably, a traffic stop does not give unlimited free license to a police officer. Every action generally must be supported by a lawful reason, such as probable cause. For a criminal defendant, an attorney who is experienced at reviewing arrest records for this element may make a big difference in the criminal defense, or perhaps constitute a ground for an appeal.

Source: NPR, “To Reduce Bias, Some Police Departments Are Rethinking Traffic Stops,” Jeff Cohen, July 25, 2016

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