When can a driver challenge the legality of a traffic stop?

| Jun 24, 2021 | Criminal Law |

Police officers patrol the surface streets and highways of Montana o keep the public safe. By stopping those who clearly violate the law and either arresting or citing them, officers help reduce the number of traffic infractions and crashes that occur.   

Individuals accused of a traffic offense, whether it is drunk driving or speeding, potentially have the right to fight back against the citation or charge brought against them. One of the more common ways for people to defend themselves involves challenging the traffic stop.  

If the officer illegally stops your vehicle, anything they found while searching it or learned while questioning you may not be admissible in court. When is a traffic stop illegal? 

When an officer doesn’t have probable cause for the stop 

Police officers should know Montana traffic laws and understand what constitutes a violation. An officer could pull you over for any kind of primary infraction. These include speeding, burned-out lights or state records that show your license or registration is invalid or expired.  

After stopping you for those particular reasons, the officer can continue to investigate any other issues they notice during their visual inspection of your vehicle or their conversation with you. A traffic stop because you failed to use your turn signal could escalate into a field sobriety test if the officer suspects you’ve had too much to drink.  

However, officers have to notice a traffic violation to initiate the stop. Asking them the reason for the stop as soon as they walk up to your car could prove crucial to your defense later. 

When they profile you or stop you just to get you in trouble 

Racial profiling is a well-known and problematic practice. It involves officers making assumptions about someone’s likely criminal activity based on their national origin, color or race. Officers can also sometimes engage in economic profiling, where they pull over people in cheaper or older vehicles in affluent neighborhoods because they make an assumption about why that person is in that neighborhood.  

Profiling a group isn’t the only illegal reason for a traffic stop. An officer who has had previous encounters with an individual could use a traffic stop to try to make an arrest. If they suspect you of drug activity, they might try to pull you over while driving even if you didn’t break the law.  

Understanding when a traffic stop is a violation of your rights to make it easier for you to defend yourself against a criminal charge.