Traffic Stops

Des Moines Traffic Stop Defense Lawyer

People often have a number of questions after they have been arrested following a traffic stop. There are certain constitutional protections in place regarding what the police may or may not do over the course of a traffic stop. If the police violate these rights you may have a valid defense against any criminal charges resulting from the traffic stop.

At the Berger Law Firm, P.C., West Des Moines traffic stop defense attorney Peter Berger can review your case and answer any questions you may have related to your stop and subsequent criminal charges. The following are general answers to some common traffic stop questions. Bear in mind that every situation involves its own set of unique circumstances which may dramatically change the answer for your particular case.

When Can Police Stop My Vehicle?

Anytime the police observe a vehicle, and believe you or another person in the vehicle is committing a crime, it can be pulled over. The legal standard is "reasonable suspicion." The most common reasons for traffic stops are speeding, having expired tags, and/or burned out lights. Even a turn signal that is not functioning can justify an investigative stop.

If You Have Only Committed a Traffic Violation, Can You Be Arrested and Brought to Jail?

The simple answer is yes. Officers have the ability to arrest or issue a citation requiring a promise to appear in court at a later date. However, officers usually issue a citation because it is easier for them, and usually the violation is minor.

Can the Police Have You Exit the Vehicle You Are in and Pat You Down?

Yes, the police can have everyone exit a vehicle they are in when there is a traffic stop. Then anyone can be "patted down" if there is a reasonable suspicion there are weapons or a reasonably perceived present danger to the officer. The Iowa Court of Appeals also decided it is within a police officer's authority, when writing a ticket, to have the person(s) sit in the police car. Being in a known drug area does not provide the police reasonable suspicion to pat you down. But, for example, if the officer believes you are lying, acting suspiciously, or the officer has a past experience with you, that may be enough to justify a pat down.

When the Police Are Asking Questions, Must They Always Advise of Constitutional Rights?

Not necessarily! This is a question lawyers are asked very often. Routine initial questions are not considered an interrogation. Generally, if you do not say anything incriminating then it does not matter! The whole point of the Miranda warning being given is to provide protection under the state and federal constitutions, so that incriminating statements may not be used by the government if the warning was not given. So, when a client asks, "Does it matter they didn't tell me my rights?" the first inquiry is whether there was an interview, and if so, was anything said that could hurt the accused's case. Usually the answer is no and no.

However, if you are in a custodial setting (where you reasonably believe you are not free to leave, such as on the third floor of the police station or surrounded by police cars on the road) when the police are asking questions, there are times your statements can be suppressed. These may be examples of where you must be given your constitutional rights (the Miranda warning). Many times the success of a government case relies on a confession or other incriminating statements from the accused, which, if suppressed, leads to a dismissal, reduction of charges or a not-guilty verdict at trial.

If you are talking with the police, and voluntarily offer information, generally they are under no obligation to advise you of your rights. However, attorney Peter Berger examines such conversations on a case-by-case basis. One of the factors to look at is whether the statements were made in a custodial setting, and whether the accused was already a suspect, or target, of the police stop or investigation. Every situation is different.

Preliminary contact, such as asking for your paperwork, is not a custodial interrogation. The main idea is that if you ever feel you are being asked for information that could incriminate you, it is very simple: You do not have to answer. The fear of making the officer mad about it, or that things could go worse for you if you don't answer all questions, is never a good reason to engage in an interrogation without a good lawyer involved.

Do the Police Need to Stop Questioning When I Say I Might Need a Lawyer?

The police do not have to stop questioning unless you make an "equivocal" (that means clear and definite) request for a lawyer. This means if you say things like, "Maybe I should talk to a lawyer" or "Do you think I will need a lawyer?" that is not enough, and the police can keep talking to you. Their interrogation technique is to engage you in what appears to be casual conversation while trying to elicit incriminating evidence. Another technique is to lie about knowing certain information about you, and/or that others have incriminated you, with the hopes you will engage the officer in conversation about it. Police are allowed to lie and misrepresent the evidence when questioning, amazingly enough.

If the Officer Promises That Things Will Go Easier When You Cooperate, Should You Talk?

There are many court cases that talk about "promissory leniency." I frequently hear about officers making promises they cannot keep. Charging decisions are up to the prosecutor, and sentencing is up to the judge. Courts look at promises of leniency on a case-by-case basis.

If You Are Stopped, What Questions Do You Have to Answer?

It is proper and expected for the driver to be asked for a driver's license and registration. Barring any obvious emergency circumstances, the officer will routinely have you wait while checking for any outstanding arrest warrants. If the officer reasonably believes you have been using drugs or alcohol, there will be immediate questioning. You will also be asked if there are any drugs or weapons in the vehicle, or anything else the officer should know about. Passengers have the same right as the driver regarding answering questions.

When Can They Search My Vehicle?

During a traffic stop, police make their own reasonable determination if they think criminal activity is involved. The police officer cannot search a vehicle based on a hunch, or guess. If there are drugs or weapons in plain view, that constitutes probable cause for an immediate search.

It was decided by the United States Supreme Court that unless other reasonable suspicion exists when the police officer chooses to issue a citation, instead of arresting a person, the vehicle cannot be lawfully searched.

What if Police Smell Marijuana?

Let's assume there is reasonable suspicion for the stop. (This can be challenged with a motion to suppress if charges are filed.) If the officer can smell marijuana on you or allegedly emanating from your vehicle, that may constitute sufficient probable cause for a warrantless search. Again, only if there are suspicious circumstances can there be a search. Often the officer will have the driver perform a field sobriety test. It is possible to be charged with operating while intoxicated if you are reasonably suspected of being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

Can They Use a Drug Dog?

You have no Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy to a dog smelling the air outside of your vehicle. Because a dog sniff is not considered a search, an officer does not need to establish reasonable suspicion to justify calling a K-9 unit.

There is a lot of case law about "exigent circumstances" and when warrantless searches can be conducted, some of which have been touched on here. In reality, what sometimes happens is a vehicle is impounded and the driver arrested. Sometimes the vehicle is then brought to the police station for a search of the contents, to secure the safety and well-being of same. That is called an inventory search. To be on the safe side, if there is probable cause for the issuance of a search warrant, one is usually obtained.

Contact an Iowa Criminal Defense Attorney

The above are general answers to common questions. The circumstances surrounding everyone's cases are different. To discuss your case in further detail, contact us online or call 515-288-8888 to schedule a free initial consultation. Our office is in Urbandale, Iowa, and we represent clients throughout Des Moines and the state of Iowa.