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Invalid traffic stop may allow evidence of other criminal charge

Most would consider a traffic stop to be a relatively minor criminal offense.  In many cases, you will go to traffic court which is a simpler procedure than the usual circuit court proceeding.

Problems arise when, in the course of a routine traffic stop, law enforcement finds other illegal activity during the stop. For example, if you are pulled over for speeding and are also driving under the influence, you can be arrested for DUI even though that wasn't the original reason for the stop.

The United States Supreme Court has taken this a step further. In a recent decision, the Court upheld a cocaine possession charge against a man who was stopped because one rear tail light was out.

As it turns out, the stop was not made due to illegal activity because in the state where the man was stopped, having only one functioning taillight is not an offense.

At trial, the man argued that, because having one non-functioning taillight was not a valid reason to be pulled over, the drug evidence in his vehicle could not be used as evidence in court.

Traditionally, under the Fourth Amendment regarding search and seizure laws, evidence such as the cocaine in this case is inadmissible in court if the original reason for stopping the vehicle was not valid.

For example, from a distance, an officer thinks that a vehicle has an expired tag and pulls it over. Once the car is stopped and he is handed the registration, he discovers that the tag is indeed up-to-date. In that situation, evidence of other illegalities in the car such as drugs or illegal weapons could arguably be suppressed, or inadmissible, in court.

After this Supreme Court ruling, the interpretation above may no longer be the case. Every state, including Florida, must adhere to the rulings of the United States Supreme Court. So, while circumstances may exist in each individual case that might still allow the suppression of the evidence, it will be more difficult for a layperson to make these arguments in court.

Having the assistance of a law firm with experience in criminal defense cases may make the difference between paying a traffic fine and a possible jail sentence based on other charges.

Source: NPR, "Supreme Court Upholds North Carolina Traffic Stop," Nina Totenberg, Dec. 15, 2014

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