Possession of Controlled Substance Charge Dismissed…

In May of 2011, one of my clients was stopped in Hartley County for speeding. He was headed north on US Highway 87. (DPS officers in Hartley County & Dallam County have stepped up their efforts at drug interdiction in the last year or so along Highway 87 which is a major route between the high plains of Texas and Colorado.) During the course of the traffic stop, the state trooper asked for consent to search the vehicle. My client denied consent to search his vehicle. The state trooper then called for a drug-sniffing canine to do a free-air search of the vehicle. According to the dog handler, the dog hit on the vehicle. The officers then conducted a search of the vehicle and found edibles containing Tetrahydrocannabinol (hashish) and a few mushrooms containing Psilocybin.

My client was arrested and subsequently charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance.

We filed a motion to suppress alleging that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to detain my client until a drug dog arrived on the scene. We also challenged the purported hit by the drug dog. After an evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress, the Court granted our motion and suppressed all evidence in the case. In July of this year, the State dismissed the criminal charges filed against my client.

Analyzing Traffic Stops…

The legality of traffic stops for Fourth Amendment purposes are analyzed under the standard articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868 (1968). Under Terry, the court must determine the reasonableness of the search or seizure by asking (1) whether the officer’s action was justified at its inception; and (2) whether the officer’s action was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place. Terry, 392 U.S. at 19, 88 S.Ct. at 1878. In assessing whether the intrusion was reasonable, an objective standard is utilized: would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or search warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate. Terry, 392 U.S. at 21-22, 88 S.Ct. at 1880. Also see Davis v. State, 947 S.W.2d 240 (Tex.Crim.App. 1997).

As I have mentioned before, Texas courts routinely recognize that a law enforcement officer may lawfully stop a vehicle and conduct a brief investigation when he observes a traffic violation. Strauss v. Texas, 121 S.W.3d 486, 490 (Tex.App. – Amarillo 2003, pet. ref’d.). The decision to stop a vehicle is reasonable when the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. Walter v. State, 28 S.W.3d 538, 542 (Tex.Crim.App. 2000).

The legality of a traffic stop is determined by the factors relied upon by a law enforcement officer in making the decision to initiate the stop. What the officer saw and his interpretations of his observations are critical. To successfully challenge a traffic stop, a thorough investigation is required and, quite often, a motion to suppress evidence must be filed. Over the next two months, I am going to discuss four specific traffic laws that are commonly used by law enforcement officers in the Amarillo area to initiate traffic stops and explain how these stops are challenged in court.

Traffic Stops – What Officers May Lawfully Do…

A law enforcement officer may lawfully stop a vehicle and conduct a brief investigation when he observes a traffic violation. Strauss v. Texas, 121 S.W.3d 486, 490 (Tex.App. – Amarillo 2003, pet. ref’d.). In general, the decision to stop a vehicle is reasonable when the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. Walter v. State, 28 S.W.3d 538, 542 (Tex.Crim.App. 2000).

During a routine traffic stop, the officer may require the driver to identify himself and produce a valid driver’s license and proof of liability insurance. Strauss at 491. The officer may direct the driver to step out of the vehicle, Estrada v. State, 30 S.W.3d 599, 603 (Tex.App. – Austin 2000, pet. ref’d.), detain the driver to check for outstanding warrants, Walter at 542, inquire about the registration of the vehicle, Sieffert V. Texas, 290 S.W.3d 478, 483 (Tex.App. – Amarillo 2009), and ask about the destination and the purpose of the trip. Haas v. State, 172 S.W.3d 42, 50 (Tex.App. – Waco 2005, pet. ref’d.).

The officer may also question any passenger in the vehicle. Duff v. State, 546 S.W.2d 283, 286 (Tex.Crim.App. 1977).

Once the purpose of the traffic stop has been completed, the officer may then ask the driver if he possesses any illegal contraband and may also ask for voluntary consent to search the vehicle. Strauss at 491. If consent to search is not given, the officer may no longer detain the vehicle or its occupants unless reasonable suspicion of some other criminal activity exists. Sieffert at 484.