Updated: May 31
Can Officer Friendly Follow a Motorist Around to Fish for a Reason to Stop a Car? Unfortunately, patrol officers can and do follow “suspicious” cars, “run” their license plate numbers and conduct criminal background checks on their registered owners, sometimes resulting in a traffic stop. There is no set rule on how long a patrol officer can follow a detainee before conducting a traffic stop. The suppression of evidence is based on a “totality of circumstances” and has less to do with how long a police officer follows a motorist and more to do with whether a motorist commits a public offense—no matter how minor.
This leads many to believe that they are being harassed or unfairly targeted by the police. They might not be wrong.
Pretextual stops have long been approved by both the Iowa and United States Supreme Courts. A “pretextual” stop is one where the officer’s private reason is different than the outwardly stated reason. For example, an officer who has a “mere hunch” that a group of kids is “up to no good” can’t roust a car load full of kids for that reason. However, an officer who believes this to be true is perfectly within the law if he or she conducts a traffic stop for another valid reason. For example, a minor traffic citation for a violation of traffic safety law, like a burned out license plate light or the failure to signal to make a turn.
This is called a “pretextual stop” because the officer uses as a pretext, or fictional reason, the traffic violation. Ending pretextual stops may limit personal biases that may enter into such judgment calls. Computerization of patrol equipment in the future might allow a dynamic traffic camera, attached to a patrol vehicle, to record a violation and then merely send the registered owner a “fix it” ticket under Iowa law. At least one Supreme Court justice has alluded that pretextual stops are simply the impermissible general warrants our country’s forefathers warned us about.
Of course, for now, pretextual stops are perfectly valid—as long as the outwardly stated reason for the stop is also valid.
If you or a loved one has been arrested in the State of Iowa, contact us for a free initial consultation today. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending unsolicited information over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.