In Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia, individuals are often charged with drug possession, drug dealing or illegal gun possession after getting pulled over for a traffic violation.
One of the key issues in these cases is whether the arresting officer had a valid, lawful reason to 1. stop the car and 2. search the car or personal items in the car. Although there may be other ways to win a criminal case, this FAQ will focus entirely on the constitutional issues involving search.
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Did Police Have a Legal Reason to Stop the Car?
In Philadelphia, police officers are known for conducting pretextual traffic stops. Some officers even fabricate traffic violations, like crossing a center line or failing to stop at a stop sign. In order to win a criminal case in these situations, there must be proof that the traffic violation didn’t happen, which isn’t easy to get. Officers will never admit to fabricating a traffic stop. In some cases, there might be evidence that the supposed traffic violation didn’t happen or was impossible.
For example, an officer pulled over a car for having a faulty brake light. However, the brake lights were fixed just days before the traffic stop, and the same mechanic takes a look at the brakes after the traffic stop and is 100% sure that the brakes were working properly. This might be enough to convince a judge that the officer fabricated the faulty brake light and pulled the car over illegally. In addition, a skilled criminal trial lawyer may be able to effectively cross examine an officer and convince a judge that the officer was wrong or fabricated the traffic violation.
Why Did the Officer Search the Car?
An officer who searches a car and its contents, including personal items of a driver or passenger, must have legal basis to do so. By far, consent to search is one of the most common and legally valid reasons for the search. If a driver or passenger consents to a search, courts aren’t likely to rule that the search was illegal.
If the driver or passenger didn’t consent to a search (or wasn’t even asked for consent), an officer is legally allowed to search a car and personal items in the car if one of the following is true:
- the officer had probable cause that the car contained illegal contraband, or
- the driver was arrested for a crime, such as a DUI.
In some instances, an officer may be able to quickly pat down a driver or passenger if the officer has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. This is known as a Terry stop and may happen during a traffic stop when the officer orders the occupants out of the vehicle. Click here for an explanation of the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause.