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The problems with pretextual stops

On Behalf of | Sep 10, 2020 | Criminal Law

Imagine you are driving to your friend’s house one afternoon. You are on I-10 when you spot red and blue flashing lights behind you and discover a police officer is pulling you over. Your mind races: Was I speeding? What did I do? Will I end up in jail for a criminal offense?

This last question may not pop into everyone’s mind, but the fact is that it can happen, thanks to pretextual stops.

What are pretextual stops?

Police officers can pull drivers over for myriad reasons. They might see a driver speeding or being reckless, or they could notice something tiny like a broken license plate light. There are countless ways people knowingly and unknowingly violate traffic laws.

But instead of pulling a driver over and addressing the alleged traffic violation, the police officer may conduct an informal investigation for some reason unrelated to the reason for the stop. They might question the driver and request to search the vehicle. Rather than getting a ticket, a driver can get charged with a crime, like drug possession.

This is a pretextual stop, and it is a controversial issue with numerous legal implications.

Why pretextual stops are problematic

As discussed in this article from the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the primary criticisms of pretextual stops is that they enable discrimination. Because police could arguably stop any driver for any traffic violation, they have great discretion as to who they decide to pull over.

As we have seen far too often, some officers use pretextual stops to target Black drivers unfairly. Doing so means these motorists wind up facing criminal charges stemming from a traffic stop at a disproportionate rate.

Some people also argue that a pretextual stop comes too close to violating a person’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Considering how controversial these stops are, it may not be surprising that some states and jurisdictions are making changes or prohibiting pretextual stops altogether. However, they still happen in many areas across the U.S. If it happens to you, it can be vital that you scrutinize the details of the stop with the help of an attorney. Doing so can help you identify any unlawful practices that could result in dismissed or reduced charges.