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The problem of illegal traffic stops on Pennsylvania highways

On Behalf of | Sep 29, 2020 | Criminal Defense

Getting pulled over is an unfortunate fact of life in Pennsylvania. In 2019 alone, Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) were involved in close to 1 million traffic stops. In many cases, the reasons for the stops were about as mundane as you can get: an unlit license plate, failure to signal a lane change or something on the dashboard that could potentially obstruct the driver’s view.

These suspected violations of traffic or vehicle codes were almost never the real reason for the stop – they were merely a pretext. Instead, state police were looking for ways to investigate much more serious crimes like drug trafficking.

This practice is known as highway interdiction. It is a legal and accepted practice under the right circumstances. But an analysis of a sample of state records found that many stops, searches and extended periods of detainment were either illegal or highly questionable.

Analysis shows problems

Two journalism outlets reviewed records on 32 traffic stops in three counties over a four-year period. All were stops made by troopers from the PSP highway interdiction unit. Here were the outcomes in those 32 cases:

  • 8 cases (25 percent) were dismissed by courts because officers could not establish probable cause
  • More than one-third of the cases have been withdrawn or had charges dismissed
  • 9 of the cases are still active in the court system, but several include defense motions to suppress evidence

Some mistakes and missteps are inevitable when law enforcement casts a wide net. But this kind of failure or error rate suggests a larger problem with the way traffic stops are being conducted.

How are stops supposed to work?

Law enforcement officers can legally pull someone over based “mere suspicion” that a vehicle/traffic code has been violated or that a crime has been committed. As a standard of evidence, this is very low bar to clear.

If a police officer wants to search a vehicle or detain a suspect for a significant length of time, however, they need to meet a standard closer to probable cause. In other words, their suspicion needs to be clear and based on something more than a hunch.

In many of the 32 cases reviewed, the excuses used to justify searches included that suspects appeared “nervous” during questioning or were “sweating.” In one case, an officer claimed that a man’s neck tattoo of a dollar sign was an indication of criminal activity.

What can you do if stopped?

If you are pulled over for a seemingly dubious reason, it is important to understand your rights. Please keep the following in mind:

  • You are allowed to ask officers if you are free to go. In many cases, people assume they are being detained and officers do not volunteer the fact that they are free to leave.
  • If an officer asks permission to search your vehicle, you do not need to consent. They might do it anyway, but they will need to justify the search in court because you didn’t voluntarily allow it.
  • Don’t be quick to take a plea deal if your case is charged. Some suspects get caught with illegal drugs or other contraband and take a plea deal, only to find out later that the case would have been thrown out or evidence would have been suppressed.

Please remember that your rights and freedom are on the line in any criminal case. The best way to protect yourself is to consult with an experienced defense attorney as soon as reasonably possible after getting charged.