"THESE DAYS," CHARLES Glover's lawyers noted in a Supreme Court brief last year, "traffic safety is so pervasively regulated that it is difficult to drive on a regular basis without violating some law. When an officer observes an infraction--any infraction--he can initiate a traffic stop."
Glover was challenging the police practice of automatically stopping cars that are registered to drivers whose licenses have been suspended. While the assumption that the registered owner is behind the wheel might seem reasonable, it could prove to be wrong in the vast majority of cases, since those cars can be legally driven by relatives, friends, and neighbors. Condoning such traffic stops, as Kansas urged the justices to do in a case they heard last November, therefore would expose many drivers to the constant threat of police harassment even when they're doing nothing illegal.
The Court sided with Kansas in April, giving police one more excuse to stop drivers. But it's not as if they really needed one. State transportation codes include hundreds of rules governing the operation and maintenance of motor vehicles. Many of them are picayune (e.g., specifying acceptable tire wear, restricting window tints, and dictating the distance from an intersection at which a driver must signal a turn) or open to interpretation (e.g., mandating a "safe distance" between cars, requiring that cars be driven in a "reasonable and prudent" manner, and banning any windshield crack that "substantially obstructs the driver's clear view").
"The upshot of all this regulation," University of Toledo law professor David Harris observed in a 1998 George Washington Law Review article, "is that even the most cautious driver would find it virtually impossible to drive for even a short distance without violating some traffic law. A police officer willing to follow any driver for a few blocks would therefore always have probable cause to make a stop."
In the 1996 case Whren v. United States, the Supreme Court said such stops are consistent with the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures even when the traffic violation is merely a pretext for investigating other matters. If an officer stops a car for a traffic violation in the hope of finding illegal drugs or seizable cash, for instance, that is perfectly constitutional, even without any evidence of criminal conduct. Thanks to Whren and other rulings, Harris concluded, "the Court has conferred upon the police nearly complete control over almost every car on the road and the people in it."
Once police stop you, a ticket is the least of your worries. Here is a guide to some of the roadside hazards created by giving cops the discretion to mess with just about anyone who dares to travel in an automobile.
You Might Lose Your License
YOUR LICENSE COULD be suspended following a traffic stop because your latest offense puts you above a specified number of points, because you were caught with marijuana or other illegal drugs (which triggers an automatic six-month suspension in Texas and a one-year suspension in Florida, for example), or because you declined to blow into a breathalyzer for a cop who thought you were drunk (which can earn you a six-month or one-year suspension, depending on the state). Your license also might be suspended for various reasons unrelated to traffic safety or even to driving, such as unpaid parking tickets or overdue child support. Once your license has been suspended, you will face fines or jail if you continue driving and happen to be stopped.
You Might Be Arrested
"IN TEXAS," DALLAS criminal defense attorney Paul Saputo warns on his website, "you can be arrested for almost any traffic violation-even minor traffic violations that are not punishable by jail time." Other states generally give police less authority to arrest drivers, but some classify minor traffic offenses, such as speeding, rolling stops, and failing to turn on your headlights, as misdemeanors, meaning they can result in an arrest.
While police usually issue citations for minor traffic offenses, the risk of arrest is not merely theoretical. The reform group Just Liberty estimates that more than 45,000 Texas drivers were arrested during traffic stops in 2016 for Class C misdemeanors-traffic and city ordinance violations that are typically handled with citations.
The Supreme Court approved such arrests in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista. That 2001 case involved a woman named Gail Atwater, who was arrested in 1997 after a Lago Vista, Texas, police officer, Bart Turek, saw her driving a pickup truck. She was unrestrained by a seat belt, and so were two young children sitting in the front seat.
Outraged by Atwater's negligence, Turek berated her, handcuffed her, and hauled her to the local police station, where officers forced her to remove her shoes, her jewelry, her eyeglasses, and the contents of her pockets before taking her mug shot. She was released on bail after spending an hour in a jail cell--all for an offense that at the time was punishable only by a fine of$25-$50.
In the majority opinion, Justice David Souter conceded that "the physical incidents of arrest were merely gratuitous humiliations imposed by a police officer who was...