Traffic Stops in Utah

DUI and Drug Crimes Salt Lake Lawyer

As you probably know, a law enforcement officer can make a traffic stop for nearly any reason, for the simple fact that everything is illegal when driving.  There are more protections for the driver, however, once the stop is made.  The cop cannot just conduct a search of one’s vehicle if the only thing the driver did was commit a traffic violation like speeding or failing to use a blinker. Nonetheless, many of these stops lead to searches which result in DUI or drug crime charges.

Some Basic Laws that Apply to Level Two Traffic Stop

A level two traffic is one in which the driver is seized. The moment a driver is stopped by law enforcement the driver is considered seized for purposes of his constitutional rights.

Utah law requires that after the officer completes the reason for a valid stop, the driver must be allowed to proceed on his way, without being subject to further delay by police for additional questioning. State v. Robison, 797 P.2nd 431, 434-35.  The Robison Court explained that any further temporary detention for investigative questioning after the fulfillment of the purpose for the initial traffic stop is justified under the fourth amendment only if the detaining officer has a reasonable suspicion of serious criminal activity. Id. at 435.

In Robinson, the police officers relied on the following factors to allege that there was reasonable suspicion to believe that there was criminal activity: nervousness, during the initial stop of Towers, who failed to make eye contact . . .; the fact that the troopers observed no cold weather gear or clothing for the Defendant’s two-week trip to Wyoming other than two small duffel bags and a fishing pole; and the Defendant’s failure to produce either written permission from the vehicle owner or a successful means of contacting the owner during the traffic stop in order to verify their permissive use of the van. Id. at 435. The appellate court held that the officers did not have sufficient reasonable suspicion to objectively believe that criminal activity was afoot in order to further detain the occupants of the vehicle.

In State v. Hansen, (2002), the Utah Supreme Court held, with facts very similar to this case, as follows: In this case, after Officer Huntington verified Hansen’s license and registration and completed a computer check, the purpose for the initial traffic stop was concluded. Yet, Officer Huntington extended the encounter by questioning Hansen about whether he had alcohol, drugs, or weapons in his vehicle and by asking if he could search his vehicle for these items. Officer Huntington conceded he had no reasonable suspicion of a further illegality to justify the additional questioning. Rather, he engaged in such questioning as a matter of practice. Since the scope of questioning exceeded, without justification, the purpose of the initial traffic stop, the continued encounter was illegal unless some other circumstance justified the additional questioning.

In State v. Hansen, 2002 UT 125, the Utah Supreme Court of Utah provided assistance in determining whether the level two encounter had deescalated to a consensual encounter. Although no single factor is dispositive, factors tending to show deescalation include informing a person he is free to leave, or that he does not have to answer additional questions. Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 39–40, 117 S.Ct. 417, 136 L.Ed.2d 347 (1996) (citing Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 227, 231, 93 S.Ct. 2041, 36 L.Ed.2d 854 (1973)).  In contrast, failure to issue a warning or citation before engaging in additional questioning weighs against deescalation.  Likewise, a “‘coercive show of authority, such as the presence of more than one officer, the display of a weapon, physical touching by the officer, or his use of a commanding tone of voice indicating that compliance might be compelled,'” also weighs against deescalation. United States v. Elliott, 107 F.3d 810, 814 (10th Cir.1997) (quoting United States v. Turner, 928 F.2d 956, 959 (10th Cir.1991)).

The appellate courts have provided additional insight in this matter.  In State vs. Patefield, 927 P.2d 655 (1996) the Utah Appeals Court held that for the seizure to end, it must be clear to the seized person, either from the words of an officer or from the clear import of the circumstances, that the person is at liberty to go about his or her business. The question then is whether when viewed under an objective standard, someone in Patefield’s position would reasonably have felt free to leave after [the police officer] gave the equipment failure warning.

Protect Your Rights

Cops are always violating search and seizure laws.  You have a right to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Contact us at 801.618.1334 to find out how our Utah criminal lawyers can protect you.  Our law firm represents individuals throughout the state.

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