"You never want to provide the officer with probable cause to search you or arrest you where none may have existed before."
You are cruising down the road, probably speeding as an estimated seventy-five percent of Americans do, when you are suddenly pulled away from texting, mobile gaming, or using social media on your phone as the wail of sirens and the flash of blue lights in your rearview mirror jolts you back into reality. Being optimistic as most of us are, you change lanes to allow the officer to speed past you in pursuit of some unlucky soul who has committed a traffic offense. Today, however, that unlucky soul is you. You might be impaired by drugs or alcohol, you might be a law-abiding citizen who has done nothing wrong, or you might have eight hundred pounds of marijuana concealed in the cabinetry of your RV that you have driven all the way from Texas and are now ten miles from your destination. From attempting to outrun the officer to recording traffic stops on their mobile phones while yelling at the officer the entire time, everyone seems to handle these situations differently. But no matter what is going on inside your vehicle, there are some rules that every East Tennessee driver should follow that might help you sidestep being charged with DUI, a drug offense, or some other felony charge that could have been avoided. The first of these is pretty obvious:
Do Not Throw Anything Out of Your Car
Over the thousands of criminal cases I have handled, I have noticed a frequency with which individuals panic and decide to try to throw items out of their vehicle once the officer has initiated the traffic stop. There is absolutely no good reason to do this and a million reasons not to. First, although it is tempting to ditch your drugs or beer cans before the officer can pull you over, most likely you are not going to be able to throw an object out the window without the officer seeing it happen. If you can see them, it is safe to assume they can see you. Second, despite what they might tell you during the traffic stop, police officers are not experts in the law. Experts in the law are called lawyers. What police officers actually do is protect the public. For instance, the Sevierville Police Department has as part of its mission statement that it is to "prevent crime, protect property, and preserve quality of life." Nowhere in its mission statement does it say "to ensure that traffic stops are valid" or "to conduct no unreasonable searches." Because the officer is focused foremost on safety and is a human being who will err on the side of caution, there is a reasonable chance that your traffic stop might be illegal or improper. Throwing an object from your car before the officer has activated his blue lights will absolutely provide the officer with reasonable suspicion to believe that you are engaged in a crime because he or she just saw you litter. This will allow the officer to pull you over regardless of whether the officer would have had any reasonable suspicion to pull you over otherwise. The traffic stop will be valid and you have lost your first line of defense against whatever charge you find yourself facing.
If the officer is able to identify the object you tossed from the car, you might find yourself in even more hot water. If you were to toss out a baggie containing drugs, a beer can, or anything autographed by Butch Jones, the officer might now have probable cause to believe you might be impaired or in possession of drugs and will want to search your vehicle thoroughly for evidence of a crime that might be found inside. This could also include calling in a K-9 unit to assist in the search of your car, which is highly problematic; despite the fact that K-9 units are easily manipulated by their handlers and there is little objective evidence that would suggest they are reliable, courts traditionally have relied on them as being sufficient to establish probable cause to search a vehicle. More importantly, in the absence of probable cause to search your car, the officer cannot search it without your consent. You never want to provide the officer with probable cause to search you or arrest you where none may have existed before. Future blogs will address whether you should ever consent to a search (spoiler alert: no) and when the officer can legally search your vehicle.
It is not uncommon for individuals to end up facing a DUI, DWI, or some other driving-related charge because they carelessly threw a beer can, cigarette, or food wrapper out the window and initiated a needless encounter with law enforcement. If you are facing any charge resulting from a traffic stop, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately to begin building your defense.