Traffic Stop, Pulled Over—for What?

Oregon’s Top Court Bans Unjustified Questioning During Traffic Stops

Police officer questioning during traffic stopMr. Arreola-Botello failed to signal when making a turn. When pulled over for a routine traffic stop, he produced his license, but took between three and four additional minutes to hunt for his registration and proof of insurance. During this “lull,” the police officer asked him about the presence of guns or drugs in his vehicle. Next, Mr. Arreola-Botello was asked to authorize a vehicle search, and he consented. The officer discovered a package containing a controlled substance.

Mr. Arreola-Botello was stopped for failing to signal a turn, but he did not have an odor of drugs, bloodshot eyes, or any other physical symptoms to establish a reasonable suspicion of illegal drugs or weapons. During the “lull” in time, did the officer have the right to ask the additional questions which led to the drug discovery?

The Oregon Supreme Court considered this question in the case, Oregon v. Arreola-Botello, and ruled that an officer’s questions must be reasonably related to the reason a driver is initially pulled over. The significance of this case extends to broader civil rights issue, where some argue that minorities (especially people of color) are questioned unjustifiably.

Mr. Arreola-Botello argued that the officer’s questions exceeded the allowable scope because the questions were not reasonably related to his failure to signal and were not supported by any additional, independent justification. In other words, the lawful traffic stop ended and morphed into an unlawful seizure.

The primary issue considered by the court regards the officer’s questions during the “unavoidable lull.” That phrase describes the period when the driver is searching for their license and registration but is not free to leave. Here, the defendant argued that the officer expanded the permissible scope of the traffic stop when he asked for permission to search the car because that inquiry was not related to the purpose of the stop.

Law enforcement does have the authority to temporarily stop a driver and ask questions to investigate activities reasonably related to it. However, when an investigation exceeds those limits, independent constitutional justification is needed. “Put simply, an ‘unavoidable lull’ does not create an opportunity for an officer to ask unrelated questions, unless the officer can justify the inquiry on other grounds.” The ruling clarifies that this is not applicable to situations where an officer is in danger or has a strong reason to believe a crime has occurred.

The Oregon court reiterated that mere conversation in a non-coercive encounter does not require any sort of justification. The police department at the center of the case agreed. Limiting small talk would defy common sense, especially given the already tense situation of a traffic stop. A spokesperson for the police department said, “our officers will continue to be friendly…we’re not going to be robots.”

The decision in this case addresses a broader civil rights issue that’s often litigated in courts across the country, but there has not been a decision as wide-reaching as this one. It’s important because minority drivers are often targeted disproportionally when it comes to random car searches. For instance, here in Ohio, a recent study found African-American drivers are more likely to be pulled over than whites, according to a review of 315,281 stops from 2009-2017 in Cincinnati, 128,157 in Columbus from 2012 through 2016, and 47,079 in Cleveland in 2016 and 2017. Given the higher index of minority drivers getting pulled over, this ruling may help shape protections against racial bias and searches.

Civil rights advocates say a decision like this applied to other states may help provide protections to people of color whom evidence indicates are far more likely to see routine traffic stops devolve into an investigation. “This decision closes a loophole in the protection of our constitutional rights that police had been using to conduct warrantless searches,” said Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Oregon.

If you have been unreasonably questioned during a traffic stop, leading to criminal charges, call Columbus criminal defense attorney, Joe Edwards at 614-309-0243. 

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