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When Does a Police Officer Have “Reasonable Suspicion” to Pull Some Over?

A police officer may only initiate a lawful traffic stop if they have “reasonable suspicion” of a traffic violation or other criminal activity. To give a simple example, if a driver runs a red light in front of a police car, the officer clearly has “reasonable suspicion” to pull that driver over. In that scenario, the officer personally witnesses an apparent traffic violation.

What if the driver does not actually break any traffic rules but the officer still “suspects” something is wrong? This does not justify a stop unless there are “specific and articulable facts,” from which a reasonable person could suspect criminal activity. Maryland courts have said this is a “common sense” standard rather than a precise scientific test.

Court of Special Appeals Overturns Drug Conviction Based on Illegal Traffic Stop

Without reasonable suspicion, however, any evidence gathered during an illegal traffic stop is inadmissible in court. Contrary to what you might think, judges do not always defer to police officer’s “instincts” when it comes to applying the reasonable suspicion standard.

Take this recent unpublished opinion from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Potter v. State. In this case, the Court actually reversed a trial judge and held that evidence seized during a traffic stop was inadmissible because the arresting officers lacked reasonable suspicion.

Here is what happened. Two sheriff’s deputies were on patrol one evening. The first deputy observed a “black Nissan Altima” driving at 35 miles per hour–well below the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Despite the lack of any apparent traffic violation, the first deputy decided to run the Altima’s registration. The deputy learned from this search that a month earlier, local police had stopped the Altima and identified a man–the defendant in this case–as the driver, but not the vehicle’s owner. The deputy then ran the defendant’s record and learned his driver’s license had been suspended.

The first deputy then contacted the second deputy by radio. The first deputy provided a general description of who he thought was driving the Altima–a “black male, short hair, covered by a ball cap with a short beard” who was “acting nervously” and looking over his shoulder. The second deputy then initiated a traffic stop.

The traffic stop quickly escalated when the deputies found evidence of possible drug possession. This eventually led to more than a dozen criminal charges. The defendant pleaded guilty but reserved his right to challenge the legality of the traffic stop.

As noted above, the Court of Special Appeals ultimately held the stop was illegal. For one thing, driving your car 20 miles below the speed limit was not a crime. For another, just because the defendant had been identified as the driver of a car he did not own during a prior traffic stop a month earlier, that did not support an inference he was the driver on the night of his drug arrest. Additionally, the appellate court said the deputy’s observation that the defendant “appeared nervous because he looked over his shoulder” was not evidence of possible illegal activity, given that many innocent people express nervousness when “confronted by a police officer.”

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.