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Friday, April 24, 2015

Traffic Tickets and Fishing Expeditions


fishing expedition
noun, Informal.
1.  legal proceeding mainly for the purpose of interrogating an adversary, or of examining his or her property and documents, in order to gain useful information.
2.any inquiry carried on without any clearly defined plan or purpose in the hope of discovering useful information.

Nearly everyone has received a traffic ticket. Almost everyone has gone fishing. Are the two mutually exclusive? Not in criminal law.

Police officers give hundreds of traffic tickets. In North Carolina, State Troopers give thousands. What police agencies cannot do during a traffic stop is go on a "fishing expedition." An officer can issue a traffic ticket. However, once that ticket is issued, an officer may not continue the contact with the driver or passenger to investigate issues that were unrelated to the initial reason for the stop.

The US Supreme Court issued a substantial ruling this week in Rodriguez v. United States.

In Rodriguez, the defendant was initially stopped by a police officer for veering onto the shoulder of a state highway in Nebraska. After the officer did a license and warrant check on both the driver and the passenger came back clean, the officer issued a warning ticket to the driver. The officer then asked the driver for permission to allow his "drug dog" sniff around the vehicle. The driver did not consent to this search by the dog. Seven or eight minutes later a second officer arrived, dog sniff search was conducted and methamphetamine was discovered. UNC School of government wrote an excellent summary of the case here.

The Court ultimately held that an officer cannot extend a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to complete the "mission" of the stop; specifically, the time to "address the traffic violation that warranted the stop.. and attend to related safety concerns." A police officer's authority to detain a driver and his vehicle ends when the issues tied to the traffic infraction are completed or reasonably should have been completed. An officer cannot, as dictionary.com correctly defines, carry on a "fishing expedition" in the hope of discovering information.

Police officers will continue to use traffic stops as gateways to conduct full investigations.  However,  this important Supreme Court ruling will require police officers to justify their continued contact. True transparency will take place when all officers are equipped with cameras/voice recorders. Only then will we know the true extent of the expedition.

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