Traffic stops are the most common reasons for police encounters, and approximately 10% of all drivers are pulled over for traffic infractions each year. About 20% of yearly stops result in additional criminal charges after the search and the arrest of vehicle occupants. That means 1 in 5 traffic stops result in serious misdemeanor or felony charges, and these charges disproportionately affect young men between the ages of 16 and 24.
Criminal charges stemming from a traffic stop are often unjustifiable because of constitutional violations before, during, or after the stop. Knowing your rights during a Wisconsin traffic stop may protect you from unlawful criminal charges. The top-rated Outagamie, Brown, and Winnebago County criminal defense attorneys at Hogan Eickhoff vigorously protect the constitutional rights of our clients after an illegal traffic stop or search. Schedule your free, confidential criminal defense consultation with our Appleton traffic and criminal defense lawyers today.
Constitutional Rights Commonly Implicated During Traffic Stops
Both the United States and Wisconsin Constitutions protect citizens from unlawful searches and seizures, which include unlawful traffic stops and vehicle searches. The Fourth Amendment prohibits law enforcement officers from unreasonably searching or seizing either a person or his or her belongings. This generally means law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant prior to a seizure. When an officer pulls over a vehicle, this is a warrantless seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Warrantless traffic stops are considered per se unreasonable seizures unless the officer witnessed the criminal act and pulled you over immediately or another legal justification existed for the stop. Traffic stops are legal, therefore, if the officer caught you speeding, making an illegal turn, or running a red light.
Just because a traffic stop was legally justifiable, however, does not mean law enforcement officers have the right to search your vehicle and personal belongings. Illegal vehicular searches pursuant to a traffic stop also violate your Fourth Amendment rights, and any evidence seized during an illegal search must be excluded from judicial consideration. Police officers must articulate another legally justifiable reason for searching your vehicle without a warrant. These justifications include:
- Emergencies – The officer is looking for a medical I.D. or blanket
- Plain sight – The officer can see drug paraphernalia or weapons through the car window
- Consent – The officer is permitted to search a vehicle with your consent, and he or she does not have to inform you of your right to refuse
- Plain smell – The strong smell of marijuana is often enough to justify a vehicle search
- Arrest – If the police officer lawfully arrests the driver for an offense or pursuant to an outstanding warrant, she may search the vehicle subject to that arrest
- Inventory – If the vehicle is impounded at a police station for a legal reason, the police may search and inventory items in the vehicle
Any evidence of criminal activity discovered pursuant or incidental to a legally justifiable search is admissible in court and may be used to obtain a warrant, make an arrest, or press charges.
In some cases, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits certain traffic stops. Statistics indicate that young black and Hispanic men are disproportionately pulled over and ticketed when compared with young white men. Police officers are not permitted to enforce the law selectively, nor can race be the motivating basis for the traffic stop.
These are narrow exceptions, however. Police officers are permitted to use traffic violations as a “pretext” for conducting a stop and searching for evidence of a crime, provided race was not the reason for the stop. They are not, however, permitted to consistently only pull over black drivers for speeding while allowing white counterparts to pass. This type of selective enforcement violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
Understanding and Asserting your Rights During a Wisconsin Traffic Stop
Drivers and passengers maintain certain constitutional rights even during a legal traffic stop. These rights include:
- The right to remain silent, such as not answering police questions beyond identifying yourself or a weapon. If an officer asks, “how fast do you think you were going?”, you do not have to answer.
- The right to refuse consent to search
- The right to an attorney if you’re being arrested and removed from the vehicle
- Passengers may have the right to leave the vehicle if safe to do so. This depends on the motivation for the stop, and passengers should always ask if they are free to leave.
- The right to minimal necessary detention. The police may not keep you pulled over for hours while waiting for drug dogs. They must make a reasonably quick determination to either ticket, release, or arrest you.
Once you’re pulled over, you do have to comply with certain police requests. You are not free to leave even if the stop was illegal, and you must provide identifying information to officers. You are also required to inform officers of the presence of firearms in a vehicle. An illegal stop may result in the dismissal of traffic charges, but it doesn’t justify failure to comply with certain laws.
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All evidence seized during an illegal stop must be excluded from consideration during criminal proceedings. This is called the exclusionary rule, and proof of an illegal stop typically results in a dismissal of any criminal charges. Further, any evidence obtained through the use of illegally seized evidence must also be excluded. For example, if drug evidence discovered during an illegal vehicle search is used to obtain a warrant and justify searching your home, any evidence discovered in your home must also be excluded. In many cases, the exclusion of evidence can result in the entire case against you being dropped or dismissed completely.
If you’ve been charged with a serious traffic offense or a criminal offense stemming from a Wisconsin traffic stop, call the experienced criminal and traffic defense lawyers at Hogan Eickhoff for your free, no-obligation case review and defense consultation. Contact Wisconsin’s top-rated defense attorneys today online or by calling (920) 450-9800.