The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled police cannot do something like pull a driver over for failing to signal a turn, and then ask about guns and drugs in the vehicle.
The decision will change how traffic stops are done in Oregon. Will it be for the better?
We want to see the public protected from unreasonable searches. And there is concern that stops for minor traffic violations lead to little actual improvement in road safety and can disproportionately target minorities.
But we have the same issue about the decision raised in the court’s dissenting opinion. The decision will mean that during a traffic stop police cannot engage in questioning they do in routine police work in other settings. And it also may mean police will be less effective at catching criminals.
Let’s summarize what happened in the case. The description that follows is largely directly from the decision: Defendant was lawfully stopped for failing to signal a turn and a lane change. During the stop, while defendant was searching for a few minutes for his registration and proof of insurance, the officer asked him about the presence of guns and drugs in the vehicle. He requested consent to search the vehicle. The officer didn’t have a reason to believe there were guns or drugs. He asked about that as part of his routine. Defendant consented to the search.
The officer located a package of methamphetamine.
Defendant contended that the officer expanded the permissible scope of the traffic stop when he asked about the contents of the vehicle and requested permission to search it because those questions were not related to the purpose of the stop.
The court found for the defendant. What’s interesting is why. The court basically said that the Constitution and Oregon law dictate that an officer is limited to questions “reasonably related to the purpose of the traffic stop or that have an independent constitutional justification.”
A substantial issue raised in the dissent: What happens when an officer “develops an intuition, on the basis of training and experience, that something is not right, but lacks enough information to have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, may the officer engage the driver in mere conversation in the hope of eliciting additional useful information?” The court’s decision makes that somewhat unclear.
It’s without question that the court made the decision it did for good reasons. But there is a cost in limiting the ability of law enforcement to seek and apprehend criminals.