I’ve been involved in a few recent criminal defense cases here in the Pittsburgh area that focused on interesting angles of our criminal justice system. I’d like to share them with you today.
Pittsburgh Traffic Citation Turns Into Drug Bust and Constitutional Rights Violation
It happens all too often; an individual is pulled over for a traffic infraction, which leads to additional charges. In the case of a recent client, the charges became driving under the influence and possession of drugs.
First, the police officer issued a citation for the traffic offense. And you may be familiar with this kind of situation…
You get pulled over, the police officer speaks with you, and then you sit in the car and wait, while the officer returns to his vehicle to write up the citation. He brings it back to you, and explains your next steps.
All of that happened in this case. Once the citation was issued to my client, the encounter appeared to be over, and the police officer turned and started to walk back to his car. But instead of leaving, the police officer returned and said to my client, “Would you mind stepping out of the car and having a discussion with me?”
Now, when talking to a police officer, most people don’t interpret the “would you mind?” as an option. They interpret it as, “Get out of the car and come back and speak with me.”
So, the client stepped from the vehicle and at that point, the officer made DUI-consistent observations. Based on that, he then asked the client, “If I call for a drug sniffing dog will we find drugs in your car?” At which point my client said, “Yes, I’ve got marijuana in the car.”
Now, I felt the traffic stop itself was appropriate. The client was speeding, and the police officer had a properly calibrated radar gun.
But I challenged what happened afterward. By asking the client to leave his car, knowing most people don’t realize they have a right to refuse the request, the state trooper violated the defendant’s constitutional rights.
The judge ruled that, indeed, it was unconstitutional, because the client didn’t believe that he was free to terminate the encounter and leave the scene. The judge suppressed all of the observations consistent with driving under the influence, as well as the drugs found in the car.
The district attorney’s office dismissed the case.
This sort of traffic encounter happens all too often. It’s a perfect example of why it’s so important that individuals know their rights– or make sure to select an attorney who does.
—Stanton D. Levenson