Chapter 2. Traffic Detentions

AuthorKen Wallentine
Initial Detention
Reasonable suspicion of a violation
Length and scope of detention
Pretextual Detentions
United States v. Whren
Tension between pretext stops and profiling stops
Stops based on drug courier profiles
Stops based on terrorist profiles
Stops based on anonymous tips of impaired driving or
other violations
After the Initial Detention
Questioning about non-traffic matters
Asking about drugs and alcohol
Drug interdiction indicators
Seeking consent to search
Ordering driver and occupants out of the car or to remain
in the car
Stopping passengers from walking away from a traffic
Identification and warrant checks for passengers
Vehicle “frisks”
Canine sniffs
Michigan v. Sitz
Investigative roadblocks
Administrative traffic checkpoints
Avoiding a checkpoint as a basis for detention
Public housing checkpoints
Roadblock ruse operations
“Hand-off” or “wall stops”
Officers may stop and detain a vehicle upon reasonable
suspicion of a traffic offense or crime. Probable cause to
believe that a crime or traffic violation has been committed
required. The scope of the traffic detention will de-
pend on the reason for the initial stop, as well as facts de-
veloped during the stop. A court will always look first at the
reason for the stop; if the reason was not lawful, all of the
evidence obtained during the stop will likely be suppressed.
Initial Detention
Reasonable suspicion of a violation
Any traffic violation, no matter how insignificant, and
whether a moving violation or non-moving violation, justi-
fies a traffic stop.
United States v. Botero-Ospina
783 (10th Cir. 1995). Even a minor parking violation may
lead to a lawful traffic detention.
United States v. Burton
334 F.3d 514 (6th Cir. 2003),
cert. denied
, 540 U.S. 1135
(2004). The stop may also be based on a reasonable suspi-
cion that the driver has a suspended driver’s license or is the
subject of an arrest warrant. Equipment violations may jus-
tify a stop. The following are examples of equipment viola-
tion stops that have been allowed by courts:
License tag light out, where state law requires a light.
State v. Weinheimer
, 2004 WL 323186 (Ohio App. 2004);
State v. Patefield
, 927 P.2d 655 (Utah App.1996). License
plate obscured or not visible from a reasonably safe dis-
United States v. Edgerton
Cir. 2006).
Turn signal on for an extended distance.
State v. Marshall
791 P.2d 880 (Utah App. 1990). Some courts have disal-
lowed a stop on this basis where no specific state statute
United States v. Miller
, 146 F.3d 274 (5th Cir.
Wobbly wheel, which may have posed safety concern.
State v. O’Brien
, 959 P.2d 647 (Utah App. 1998).
Bouncing (skipping on pavement) tire.
State v. Harrison
533 P.2d 1143 (Az. 1975).
Bulging or balding tires.
State v. Myers
, 580 N.E.2d 61
(Ohio App. 1990).
Missing mirror.
State v. Thompson
Brake light out.
State v. Chevre
, 994 P.2d 1278 (Utah
App. 2000).
Blinking headlight.
State v. Pinkham
Improper bumper height.
State v. Shiley
, 598 N.E.2d 775
(Ohio App. 1991).
Lack of mud flaps and tires extending beyond body.
United States v. Cotton
Cracked windshield. Some courts have sustained traffic
stops for cracked windshields only where the officer could
see that the crack was unsafe or violated the equipment
United States v. Callarman,
Cir. 2001) (traffic stop was allowed where officer had
reasonable suspicion that crack obstructed the driver’s
cert. denied
, 535 U.S. 1072 (2002). Most courts,
however, allow a stop upon observation of any crack.
United States v. Cashman,
216 F.3d 582 (7th Cir. 2000)
(cracked windshield provided basis for stop even if the
crack was not large enough to violate equipment stat-
State v. Vera
, 996 P.2d 1246 (Ariz. App. 1999) (stop
proper even though no Arizona statute specifically pro-
hibits cracks).
Parking violation. An officer may detain a vehicle and
driver to investigate a parking violation even if a state
treats parking violations as civil, rather than criminal.
The pretext stop doctrine established in
Whren v. United
, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), does not distinguish between
criminal and civil traffic violations.
United States v.
, 461 F.3d 1097 (9th Cir. 2006). Other courts
have reached similar conclusions, including a case where
officers did not stop a vehicle until following it several
blocks from the scene of the illegal parking.
United States
v. Copeland
, 321 F.3d 582 (6th Cir. 2003).
In addition to an observed parking or moving violation, reg-
istration violation, or equipment violation, the driver’s iden-
tity may provide the basis for the stop. Stops may also be
justified by:
Knowledge, or reasonable suspicion, that the driver or
passenger is the subject of an arrest warrant.
State v.
, 552 P.2d 120 (Utah 1976).

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