Before a law enforcement officer can stop a driver he must first have reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a criminal offense. When it comes to driving that means that any minor traffic violation warrants a stop based on reasonable suspicion. Although this is troubling in and of itself, it is even more troubling that if a police officer makes a mistake in developing reasonable suspicion, there is no remedy for the unwarranted stop.
In State v. Applegate, 2008 UT 63, the Utah Supreme Court addressed this very issue. In that case the defendant had been driving a car with Colorado license plates and an officer had observed her driving this car for approximately five months. The officer pulled her on grounds that the vehicle should have been registered in Utah within 60 days. After pulling her over he developed reasonable suspicion that she was impaired. He conducted field sobriety tests and arrested her for driving under the influence. A subsequent chemical test revealed that she had meth in her system. Marijuana was found in her vehicle.
She challenged the search by arguing that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion because she was not the owner of the vehicle, and therefore, she was not in violation of not having registered the vehicle in Utah. Since she wasn’t violating any traffic laws, the stop was illegal. The Utah Supreme Court did not agree. The officer was not required “to rule out innocent conduct prior to the stop. Instead, he was only required to reasonably suspect that [the driver] was violating any one of the multitude of applicable traffic… regulations.” Because the officer suspected that the driver was violating the law, that was enough. So basically, law enforcement doesn’t even have to be right, they just have to have a hunch that someone is violating a law.
Perhaps you have been arrested as a result of a traffic stop. Call our criminal defense lawyers for more information about whether the officer involved in your case had the requisite reasonable suspicion to stop your vehicle.