Often times, what initially begins as a traffic stop for a civil offense (such as speeding) unexpectedly becomes an investigation into a criminal offense, ultimately leading to criminal charges. Under Fourth Amendment law, police officers conducting a traffic stop can investigate for criminal activity so long as the investigation was reasonably derived from the officer’s initial suspicion that a traffic offense had been committed. Very recently, the Illinois State Attorney General filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether an officer can continue to hold the defendant even after the officer’s initial suspicion had already dissipated.
The case of Illinois v. Cummings
The petition for appeal was filed under Illinois v. Derrick Cummings, earlier this past summer. This case arose out of a traffic stop where a driver was charged with operating a vehicle without a license. The officer who conducted the traffic stop testified that he initially suspected the vehicle registration had expired. But after running the registration number through the database, the officer discovered that the registration was not expired but that the car was registered under a woman who had an arrest warrant issued against her. The officer then pulled the vehicle over and approached the driver. The driver was not a woman, but was the defendant, Mr. Derrick Cummings.
Despite the officer realizing that the driver was not the subject of the arrest warrant, the officer requested that the driver produce his license and registration per standard police protocol. The driver was unable to produce a license, and was subsequently charged with a felony under Illinois state law.
The defendant successfully argued before the Illinois Supreme Court that the evidence of the driver’s failure to produce a license should be excluded from trial since the initial purpose for the traffic stop was already achieved prior to asking the driver to produce a license. According to the defendant and the Illinois trial and appellate courts, the officer was only permitted to stop the defendant to determine whether the driver was in fact the object of the warrant, and then to execute the warrant if the driver was the correct person. But since the officer quickly realized that the driver could not have been the woman against whom the warrant was issued, it was unreasonable to continue the seizure and to require the defendant to produce a license.
Terry v. Ohio and Traffic Stops
Over the past few decades, both state and federal courts have applied the famous ruling in Terry v. Ohio to traffic stops. Under the Terry doctrine, a traffic stop (also known as an “investigative detention”) constitutes a warrantless seizure under the Fourth Amendment, but is permissible as long as it is supported by the officer’s reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed, or is about to commit, a crime. The stop is lawful so long as it is “reasonable” – if it is initially justified by suspicion of an offense, and only lasts as long as reasonably necessary to complete the investigation into the suspected crime.
Massachusetts Law on Traffic Stops
Massachusetts courts have ruled that an officer’s questioning of the driver and/or passengers must be reasonably related to the initial reason for the stop. If the officer finds that his/her suspicion of an offense was unfounded, the officer must release the driver. If, however, the officer finds no real evidence for the suspected offense but evidence of another crime (such as drug possession) during the course of his questioning the driver, the officer may conduct a more thorough investigation that is more closely tailored to that criminal offense rather than the initial traffic offense.
Because of the wide latitude officers are granted while conducting traffic stops, a simple stop for a broken tail light could quickly lead to a full blown car search for weapons or drugs, if the officer finds evidence of drugs or weapons as he discusses the tail light with the driver. The good news, however, is that Massachusetts courts have interpreted Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution (Declaration of Rights) as providing more protection than the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, a defendant in a Massachusetts state court theoretically has more privacy protection under the state constitution, and is often more successful in defending him/herself against warrantless searches and seizures by law enforcement.