UMATILLA COUNTY — Lawyers and law enforcement agencies alike are still processing a recent Oregon Supreme Court ruling that changes how police conduct traffic stops.
The ruling, issued on Nov. 15, affects what types of questions that law enforcement officers can ask during the “unavoidable lull” that occurs during a regular traffic stop within the handful of minutes it might take for someone to track down their proof of insurance and registration in a crowded glove box.
The Hermiston Police Department is prepared to comply, according to Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston.
“This is going to further hinder the ability to stop potential criminal activity in motion,” He said. “So much contraband is in motion all the time in vehicles.”
He said the ruling could eventually cause a decline in DUII enforcement.
The ruling follows a criminal case involving the Beaverton Police Department.
An officer lawfully pulled over defendant Mario Arreola-Botello for failing to signal during both a lane change and turn. While Arreola-Botello was searching for paperwork, the officer asked about the presence of weapons and drugs in the vehicle, and if he would consent to a search.
Arreola-Botello — who primarily spoke Spanish, according to the ruling — agreed to the search. The officer found a baggie of methamphetamine, and an arrest ensued.
Arreola-Botello was eventually charged with possession of methamphetamine, despite his attorney motioning to suppress the evidence obtained during the search and later appealing the conviction — the argument being that the questions leading up to the search were irrelevant to the traffic stop at hand and lacked constitutional justification.
The Oregon Court of Appeals rejected the argument set forth by attorney Joshua Crowther, but this ruling overturned that decision, and it forms part of the move around various studies that show people of color are more likely to have their vehicles searched during traffic stops.
“Our conclusion today — that all questioning must be reasonably related to the purpose for the traffic stop — will ensure that an officer’s questions are not based on such biases,” the ruling states.
Days after the ruling was issued, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission released traffic stop data from 12 of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies. The report showed that people in minority groups are slightly more likely to be cited during a traffic stop than white people. The Portland Police Bureau was twice as likely to search black people than white, according to the data.
Data on medium and smaller agencies will come out in the next two years, according to the commission.
Edmiston said he felt the Hermiston Police Department drives away from bias.
“We really proud of the fact that we have a force that is proportional to the community,” Edmiston said.
According to 2018 Census Bureau estimates, Hermiston’s Hispanic or Latino population is at 36.7%.
He said that almost 26% of officers with the department are bilingual.
Kara Davis, assistant director of Intermountain Defenders Inc. in Pendleton, said the ruling could reduce discrimination. She said sometimes it’s something related to another culture or a lower class that can draw an officer’s attention.
“It’s not the people we consider ‘good people’ in our society,” she said. “They’re not going to ask a random lawyer if they have weapons on them.”
She said back when she took on possession cases, about half of them started with traffic stops.
“I wouldn’t say that the average traffic stop leads to a criminal case, but a lot of criminal cases lead to traffic stops,” she said.
And she doesn’t think that’s going to stop, because the ruling doesn’t affect an officer who requests a search based on reasonable suspicion — the smell of alcohol on someone’s breath, or the sight of packaged drugs on the passenger seat, for instance.
“I wish the public knew they had the right to say no to anything the officer requests voluntarily,” she said. “People get nervous around police officers. That if they say no, they’ll look guilty.”
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said rulings like this one could cause a “prevailing attitude of defiance.”
“I don’t think it’s going to change the way we do business significantly,” he said.
Roberts added that officers at the police department are trained to identify signs of potential misconduct before requesting a search during a traffic stop.
Because of Pendleton’s size, he said, officers are usually already acquainted with the offender population and who might have drug paraphernalia or an outstanding warrant already.
“It’s different in a large urban area,” he said. “That’s a luxury we have, living in a smaller population.”