Pretextual Traffic Stops — Fourth Amendment Violation

The allowance for pretextual stops inevitably leads to fourth amendment violations.

Pretextual stops, or “looking for a reason” to initiate a traffic stop, by nature, form the basis for fourth amendment violations.

While it is possible that an officer could pull over an individual for a traffic infringement and happen to find suspicious criminal activity, that’s not usually how it goes down.

It’s important to differentiate happenstance observations during a traffic stop from pretextual stops, where the officer is actively looking for a reason to pull over a vehicle.

In Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), the court determined that such stops were acceptable when it could be determined that “a reasonable officer would have stopped the car for the purpose of enforcing the traffic violation at issue”. This opened up barn-door wide leeway for officers who went above and beyond the court’s decision to profile, follow without cause, and use spurious reasons to pull over their target.

The latter form of stop, a pretextual stop, looking for a reason, provides officers with broad leeway to pull over drivers under the justification that the driver may have committed some infraction out of the almost uncountable number infractions on the books.

Such reasons can range from nitpicking license plate headlamp violations to reaching “dangerous lane change” and even speculative non-infractions such as “I couldn’t see if your seatbelt was on” stops.

Such pretextual stops can be identified when it is clear that the reason for the stop is poorly justified and the officer is looking for a reason to pull the driver over. They can be identified with the following characteristics:—

The officer either (a) did not clearly and immediately articulate the crime or infraction, (b) cited vague or spurious laws, (c) used reasons that occurred after initiating silent pursuit for the basis for the stop and did not articulate valid justification for pursuing the target, or (d) used insufficient evidence for the stop.

Such stops inevitably lead to fourth amendment violations and should therefore be ruled unconstitutional.

In the case of the video below, the officer began following his target before initiating a stop. The traffic stop had nothing to do with the officer’s unstated reason for following his target. The officer followed his target to “find a reason” to pull him over. Therefore, the constitutionality of the stop is questionable.

Any stop determined to be pretextual should be deemed invalid, thereby invalidating anything that came from the stop as “fruit of the poisonous tree”.

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