The legality of traffic stops for Fourth Amendment purposes are analyzed under the standard articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868 (1968). Under Terry, the court must determine the reasonableness of the search or seizure by asking (1) whether the officer’s action was justified at its inception; and (2) whether the officer’s action was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place. Terry, 392 U.S. at 19, 88 S.Ct. at 1878. In assessing whether the intrusion was reasonable, an objective standard is utilized: would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or search warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate. Terry, 392 U.S. at 21-22, 88 S.Ct. at 1880. Also see Davis v. State, 947 S.W.2d 240 (Tex.Crim.App. 1997).
As I have mentioned before, Texas courts routinely recognize that a law enforcement officer may lawfully stop a vehicle and conduct a brief investigation when he observes a traffic violation. Strauss v. Texas, 121 S.W.3d 486, 490 (Tex.App. – Amarillo 2003, pet. ref’d.). The decision to stop a vehicle is reasonable when the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. Walter v. State, 28 S.W.3d 538, 542 (Tex.Crim.App. 2000).
The legality of a traffic stop is determined by the factors relied upon by a law enforcement officer in making the decision to initiate the stop. What the officer saw and his interpretations of his observations are critical. To successfully challenge a traffic stop, a thorough investigation is required and, quite often, a motion to suppress evidence must be filed. Over the next two months, I am going to discuss four specific traffic laws that are commonly used by law enforcement officers in the Amarillo area to initiate traffic stops and explain how these stops are challenged in court.
As I have noted in prior posts, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, §9 of the Texas Constitution prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement officers. Hayes v. State, 475 S.W.2d 739, 741 (Tex.Crim.App. 1971); Kolb v. State, 532 S.W.2d 87, 89 (Tex.Crim. App. 1976).
However, the protections afforded by these constitutional guarantees may be waived.
One noted exception to the requirement of either a search warrant or probable cause is a search that is conducted pursuant to consent. Before the consent is deemed effective, the prosecution must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the consent was freely and voluntarily given. The burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that consent was freely and voluntarily given requires the prosecution to show the consent given was positive and unequivocal and there must not be any duress or coercion, actual or implied. The question of whether consent was voluntary is a question of fact to be determined from the totality of all the circumstance surrounding the giving of the consent to search. See Meeks v. State, 692 S.W.2d 504, 508-509 (Tex.Crim.App. 1985, en banc); State v. Ibarra, 953 S.W.2d 242, 245 (Tex.Crim.App. 1997, en banc); and Carmouche v. State, 10 S.W.3d 323, 331 (Tex.Crim.App. 2000).
In March of 2011, one of my clients was charged with possession of marijuana in Oldham County. He was a passenger in a vehicle which was stopped for speeding. During the course of the traffic stop, the driver of the vehicle gave consent to search the vehicle. Approximately 10 pounds of marijuana was found hidden in boxes wrapped as presents. After more than a year of negotiating with the State, the State dismissed the criminal charges filed against my client.
A factor that was beneficial to my client was that he did not have a criminal history. One factor that made this case challenging for the State was that there was little evidence linking my client to the marijuana.