The state's highest court has given law enforcement the right to use a traffic violation as pretext to search a person's car, even if an officer plans to use the traffic stop as a gateway to uncover an unrelated crime. The court ruled that regardless of an officer's suspicions, stopping a person for a traffic violation is legitimate. If an officer sees enough evidence to warrant further search of the vehicle, then that is also lawful, regardless of whether the officer only made the stop to follow up on personal suspicions. However, the justices left the door open for future challenges if a defendant can prove the traffic stop was racially motivated.
The case reached the state's Supreme Judicial Court after officers staking out a known drug house in Taunton pulled over two men exiting that house for a speeding violation. As the officers interviewed the driver, they said they smelled marijuana and searched the car. One man was arrested for crack cocaine and gun possession. He challenged the arrest, saying it constituted an unlawful search and seizure.
The court ruled against his claim that the search violated the 4th Amendment but said his argument raised legitimate concerns about how racial bias can lead to officers using an minor infraction to fish for other crimes.
WGBH's Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed said traffic stops have long been a touchy subject when it comes to fair policing.
"Pretextual stops are very controversial, in part because the police sometimes resort to racial profiling or racial bias — driving while black — to warrant these stops, and that sometimes can lead to violent confrontations," said Medwed.
He added that the SJC laid out a pathway for future lawyers to challenge a similar case if they can prove racial bias. The presiding argument said a pretextual stop could violate the Equal Protection Clause if a lawyer can prove the officer targeted a motorist strictly because of the color of their skin.
To listen to the full conversation, click the audio link above.