Traffic Stops – Road Rules of Rowe

Traffic Stops and Drug and Alcohol Cases

A van traveling below the speed limit travels down I-95 late one evening.  A state trooper tails the van, pacing the vehicle to check its speed.  The trooper observes the van briefly cross over the edge line that marks the separation of the right travel lane and the shoulder.  Continuing to pace the van, the trooper observes the van touch the right edge line.  Seeing enough, the trooper activates his police vehicle’s lights and the van pulls to the side of the road.

The trooper approaches the van on the passenger side.  The sole passenger in the van is the driver.  The trooper asks for license and registration.  The trooper observes luggage in the back of the van as cargo.  As it turns out, the license is from out-of-state and the rental agreement on the van has expired.  The trooper begins asking the driver of the van a series of questions.  The officer learns that the luggage belongs to the driver.

“You don’t have anything to hide, right?  Mind if I take a look?” the trooper asks.

The driver of the van, not wanting to seem suspicious, grants the officer permission to search the van.  Opening the van door, the trooper immediately smells the strong and unmistakable odor of marijuana.  The officer opens up the luggage and discovers over 30,000 grams of marijuana.

The driver of the van is tried and convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, finds a problem with the traffic stop.  Two theories are presented for why the traffic stop was legal: 1) the driver went slightly over the edge line and later touched the edge line; and 2) the police have a “community caretaking” function that allows police to make traffic stops absent evidence of a crime or traffic violation, but merely in the name of public safety.  The Court rejects both arguments.

“We conclude that the petitioner’s momentary crossing of the edge line of the roadway and later touching of that line did not amount to an unsafe lane change or unsafe entry onto the roadway…and, thus, cannot support the traffic stop in this case…[Also] Neither this Court nor the General Assembly has adopted the community caretaking function in this context.”

Because the traffic stop was therefore illegal, the driver of the van has his conviction reversed.  All the marijuana evidence against him should not have been admitted at trial since it all derived from this initial illegal traffic stop.

The above facts are all derived from the case Rowe v. State.  The case demonstrates not only the importance of good police work but also the lengths courts will go to protect the rights of criminal defendants and everyday citizens.

Police officers cannot just pull vehicles over at will.  Officers must first observe something that gives them reasonable suspicion.  Reasonable suspicion means that an officer can articulate particular facts that lead him or her to suspect criminal activity.  The officer can’t simply pull a vehicle over on a “hunch” or at random.

Once a legal traffic stop is instituted, the officer can only conduct a vehicle search either by gaining permission from the driver, or by having probable cause.   If asked by a police officer if he/she may search your vehicle, you are within your legal right to refuse.  If, however, the officer has probable cause, a legal standard where it is more probable than not that criminal activity is taking place, a police officer can search your vehicle even without a search warrant.  An officer may obtain probable cause if he or she sees or senses evidence of a crime, such as drugs located in the vehicle in plain view or a driver with slurred speech and the strong odor of alcohol.

In the course of a traffic stop, police may ask you questions.  Some of the questions could cause you to incriminate yourself if you answer them.  You are within your legal right NOT to answer police questions that may incriminate you.  (Although, you are required to answer basic information like your name and produce an ID.)  During a routine traffic stop, police are not required to read you a Miranda warning (“you have the right to remain silent…”).  Because police are not required to give you this warning and to inform you of your rights, you may not realize you have a legal right to remain silent and not answer police questions.  But remember: You absolutely have a legal right to NOT answer police questions that may incriminate you.

An attorney can help answer questions related to your case if you were pulled over by police.  If you were pulled over and received a citation for DUI or for drug possession, you should have an attorney review your case to help ensure the police did their job lawfully and to help protect your legal rights.

Fred Antenberg is an attorney in Columbia, Maryland who handles traffic and DUI matters in Howard County, Maryland and surrounding counties.  CONTACT Fred at 410-730-4404.