Motor Vehicle Stops

The most common encounter between police officers and civilians is when an officer pulls over a motor vehicle and talks to the driver. Every motor vehicle stop constitutes a seizure, and police officers need to have a reasonable basis to pull over a car.

Motor vehicle infractions are often used by the police to justify a stop. If a driver is violating any traffic rules (speeding or turning without signaling, for example) or if the vehicle has defective equipment (like a broken taillight, improperly tinted windows, or a rejection sticker), the police can stop the car. Officers can also pull over cars if they know the registered owner has a suspended driver’s license. Finally, an officer can perform a wellbeing check on a car to make sure the occupants are not in danger. This most often happens when a car is stopped in the breakdown lane on the highway.

Once an officer stops a car, the driver is required to produce a valid license and registration. If the paperwork is in good order, the officer cannot continue to detain the driver unless: (1) the officer believes the driver (or one of the passengers) has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime; or (2) releasing the car would create a safety concern. Unless the officer has an independent reason to believe a passenger is breaking the law, he cannot ask the passenger for identification.

Exit Orders

When a police officer has lawfully stopped a motor vehicle, at what point may he order the driver or the passengers to exit the vehicle? In Massachusetts, there are three general justifications for an officer to give an exit order.

  1. The Officer Fears for His Safety. If a police officer reasonably fears for his safety, he is entitled to order the occupants to get out of the car. The officer needs to be able to articulate specific reasons to justify his fear, although it doesn’t take much for an exit order to be upheld in court. If the occupants in the car cannot identify themselves, if there are more occupants than officers, if the occupants are moving around in the car, or if the occupants are acting nervously (combined with other factors), the officer will probably get away with issuing an exit order. Nervousness alone, however, is insufficient to justify an exit order.
  2. The Officer Reasonably Suspects an Occupant of the Car is Engaged in Criminal Activity. Suppose the police are investigating the robbery of a bank, and an officer stops a car within 10 minutes of the robbery and within a mile of the bank. The officer stopped the car initially because the driver was speeding, but it turns out the driver and his passengers match the description of the robbery suspects. The officer reasonably believes the car’s occupants robbed the bank and the officer can order them to get out of the car.
    Notably, one of the most popular reasons police previously used to justify an exit order was the smell of marijuana. It was a perfect excuse for the police because it was impossible for defendants to prove marijuana smoke was not in the vicinity of the car. However, since the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is no longer a crime in Massachusetts, the smell of marijuana by itself does not give police officers the right to issue exit orders.
  3. Officers are Entitled to Search the Car. In cases where the police have legal justification to search a car, officers may order the occupants to get out prior to the execution of the search. For example, if the driver is being arrested on an outstanding warrant and his car is going to be towed, the police may first search his car. Before doing so, the police may order the occupants to exit.
Extraterritorial Stops

Ordinarily a police officer may only stop a motor vehicle in the city or town where he works. A notable exception to this rule is fresh pursuit. If a police officer witnesses a crime in his own city and begins pursuing the suspect in his own city, he can follow the suspect into another town in order to seize the suspect.

Protective Sweeps

If the police have lawfully stopped a car, and the officer reasonably believes the car contains a weapon, he may conduct a “protective sweep” of the vehicle to ensure no weapons are present. Officers are permitted to search only those areas where a weapon could reasonably be found. A protective sweep does not license the police to search pill bottles, for example, because it is not reasonable to believe a weapon will be contained therein.

Oui Investigations

If a police officer reasonably suspects a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he can ask the driver to get out of the car to perform field sobriety tests. Any driver who refuses to attempt the field sobriety tests will likely be arrested, but the prosecutor cannot tell the jury at the trial that the driver declined the field sobriety tests. Anybody who is arrested for operating under the influence of alcohol is legally obligated to take the Breathalyzer test at the police station. The Breathalyzer machine measures the percentage of alcohol content in the blood by analyzing a breath sample. If the arrestee refuses to take the Breathalyzer, his driver’s license will be immediately suspended for at least six months. However, Massachusetts is one of only a couple of states where a Breathalyzer refusal is not admissible at trial. A jury will never know the defendant refused to take the Breathalyzer.

Roadblocks

Police departments sometimes set up roadblocks to randomly check the sobriety of drivers. This is one of the few instances where the government can stop and temporarily seize somebody without any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The United States Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have both ruled sobriety checkpoints are constitutional if they abide by very strict rules. If the police fail to scrupulously follow the roadblock procedures, the driver can file a motion to suppress his arrest in court. The scope and timing of the roadblock must be reduced to writing and the media must be notified beforehand of the general time and location of the roadblock. A “screening” police officer will have a short conversation with every driver to look for clues of alcohol consumption (such as slurred speech or glassy eyes). If the driver does not appear to be under the influence of alcohol, he will be permitted to drive away. If the driver appears to have consumed alcohol, he will be directed to a nearby parking lot for additional testing by the police.

It is very common for police officers to make mistakes during motor vehicle stops. When those mistakes violate the constitution, the defense attorney will file a motion to suppress and the prosecutor will not be permitted to share with the jury any evidence resulting from the illegal police conduct. If you have been arrested following a motor vehicle stop, call a criminal defense attorney immediately to explore your options.

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