Police stopped me for no reason. Can they do that?
No, they cannot legally stop you in the United States for no reason. Police in most other countries can. The 4th Amendment forbids the police from stopping you unless they have probable cause that a crime or traffic infraction has occurred or reasonable suspicion that a crime is occurring.
I was parked and the cops walked up and questioned me. Can they do that?
Usually yes. Virginia law divides all encounters with police into 3 categories:
- Consensual encounters between you and police are OK. The 4th doesn’t even apply as long as you feel free to leave. In fact, at this stage you can refuse to answer questions and simply walk or drive away. If the police stop you from leaving, then the 4th kicks in.
- “Terry” stops have not always been legal. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Supreme Court allowed for brief, minimally intrusive stops to investigate a crime. Terry stops can occur even when no law and no traffic infraction has happened. If the officer has a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a crime is occurring he can pull you over.
Terry stops can be risky for the officer in court though; they are the most common type of stop that gets thrown out. It’s not unusual for an officer to stop someone based upon a hunch or suspicion. Stops based upon hunches and suspicion violate the 4th Amendment.
- Arrests and searches based upon probable cause that a crime has been committed.
The police said someone reported me for drunk driving. They pulled me over. Can they do that?
Maybe, maybe not. Whether an anonymous tip can lead to a valid stop is based on whether all the circumstances taken together add up to sufficient reliability. Factors that increase reliability include detailed descriptions by the anonymous tipster, corroboration of those details by police, accurate predictions of future behavior, and whether the anonymous informant used a cell phone to call 911 (this would leave records.)
When I was pulled over for DWI the cop said he stopped me because I was swerving. Is there anything you can do?
Weaving outside the line is traffic infraction even if your wheel is just an inch over the line. Virginia Code § 46.2-804(2) states:
“A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as is practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from that lane until the driver has ascertained that such movement can be made safely.”
An officer can legally stop you if he observes this. However, if your tire is just on the line, or you are weaving within your lane it is not an infraction.
Virginia’s Court of Appeals said that if you weave within your lane 5 to 10 times within 25 seconds an officer would have reasonable suspicion to pull you over. That’s a lot of weaving in just 25 seconds. We’ve had a number of cases thrown out for weaving within the lane or riding on the line.
“Virginia State police pulled me over for going too slow and charged me with DUI.” Legal?
Virginia has no minimum speed limit. In fact, you can be charged with reckless driving in Virginia for going the speed limit if the road conditions are bad. Low speed alone is not an infraction and should not be enough for reasonable suspicion for the stop.
On the other hand, impeding traffic can results in being pulled over legally and a traffic ticket:
- Virginia Code § 46.2-877. Minimum speed limits.
- No person shall drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic except when reduced speed is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law.
Notice though, there is an exemption for operator safety and the flow of traffic has to be reasonable and within the law. Also, if a driver can simply change lanes to get around you, that is not impeding. No impeding . . . no infraction . . . no case against you!
“When I was pulled over last night, the cop said I didn’t use my turn signal … now I’m charged with driving under the influence.” Legal?
This may or may not be a good stop. The Virginia Code states:
- § 46.2-848. Signals required on backing, stopping, or turning
- Every driver who intends to back, stop, turn, or partly turn from a direct line shall first see that such movement can be made safely and, whenever the operation of any other vehicle may be affected by such movement, shall give the signals required in this article, plainly visible to the driver of such other vehicle, of his intention to make such movement.
Notice that you don’t need to signal if your movement will not affect another driver. Many of my driving while intoxicated clients are driving late at night when traffic is light. Was anyone behind you? If the officer cannot prove that there was traffic around that was affected by your driving … you win!
Remember, if the stop is bad – the arrest is bad – and all evidence collected is bad. This is the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine.
I got stopped for an air freshener. Really?
Yes, really! Virginia Code makes it illegal to have anything hanging from your rearview mirror:
- § 46.2-1054. Suspension of objects or alteration of vehicle so as to obstruct driver’s view
- It shall be unlawful for any person to drive a motor vehicle on a highway in the Commonwealth with any object or objects, other than a rear view mirror, sun visor, or other equipment of the motor vehicle approved by the Superintendent, suspended from any part of the motor vehicle in such a manner as to obstruct the driver’s clear view of the highway through the windshield, the front side windows, or the rear window, or to alter a passenger-carrying vehicle in such a manner as to obstruct the driver’s view through the windshield …
This is one of the worst laws in Virginia. Take a look at your local Walmart store and you will see a couple hundred ways to break this law for sale! Courts have ruled that whatever you hang does not need to “materially obstruct” your view; which means, even if the dangling object does not really hinder your view, the police can pull you over.
“I was stopped Saturday night because I was near a known drug house …” Legal?
Probably not. Both the United States and Virginia Supreme Courts have said that being in a high crime area is not enough to stop someone involved in otherwise legal, innocent behavior. The US Supreme Court explained that thousands of people live in high crime areas: there cannot be one standard for the “right” neighborhoods and another for the poorer.
“My rental car did not have a front tag …” Good stop or bad?
It depends. Virginia requires a front and rear tag. If a tag is missing, then police can pull you over. However, if the car is licensed in a state that only requires a rear tag, then the officer does not have probable cause to stop you. The Virginia Court of Appeals held that the officer should have checked what the state law was where the car was licensed.
“Early Sunday morning I was arrested for DWI. The cop who arrested me told the magistrate that I made an illegal u-turn.” Good stop or bad?
Maybe good, maybe bad. This is another one of those calls that only a practiced DWI attorney may know. Virginia law states:
- § 46.2-845. Limitation on U-turns
- The driver of a vehicle within cities, towns or business districts of counties shall not turn his vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction except at an intersection.
- No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction on any curve, or on the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where the vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from any direction within 500 feet.
Most officers will tell you that the only place you can make a u-turn is at an intersection. That is correct … some of the time. If you made that u-turn in a non-business district of a county, then the stop was illegal and the case should be dismissed.
In driving under the influence cases, the “devil is in the details.” There are thousands of details in a DUI case that can affect your trial. If your attorney does not know that non-intersection u-turns are legal in counties, you could be wrongly convicted of driving while intoxicated.
“I got stopped because my friend [a passenger] tossed some trash out the window …” Legal stop, or not?
Probably legal. A number of courts have held that police can stop a car solely to investigate a crime by the passenger. Police can also order a passenger out of a car, even if, they are not suspected of doing anything wrong.