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Colorado Criminal Law – Traffic Stops, Why You Should Always Refuse To Let The Police Search Your Car Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer – When you are stopped by the police for a traffic matter – what seems like a very simple citation for violating a traffic law can quickly escalate to a full search of your car if you are not aware of and exercise your constitutional rights.
First you have to understand the dynamics of the classic Colorado traffic stop and the attempted continuing investigation that follows.
(1) the Arrest (which requires probable cause),
(2) the Investigatory Stop, (which requires reasonable suspicion) and
(3) the Consensual Interview (which requires express or implied consent of the person being interviewed by the police). Colorado citizens are protected by Article II, section 7, of the Colorado Constitution, AND the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
ALL arrests and investigatory stops must be supported by evidence of probable cause and reasonable suspicion respectively.
A CONSENSUAL INTERVIEW with a citizen – by definition – does not involve any constitutional protections. On the other hand a non-consensual encounter which results in a seizure must be supported by reasonable suspicion (if it is a detention) and probable cause (if it is an arrest)
“A seizure is an arrest if a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood the situation to constitute a restraint on freedom of movement to the degree associated with formal arrest.”
An INVESTIGATIVE DETENTION is a seizure that is limited to a brief, non-intrusive detention for example during the preliminary questioning of a suspect. During an INVESTIGATIVE DETENTION the level of intrusion must be proportional to the level of “reasonable articulable suspicion” supported by evidence that the suspect is engaged in criminal activity.
A CONSENSUAL ENCOUNTER is not a seizure because the contact is as a result of the voluntary cooperation of the citizen. Answers are elicited through non-coercive questioning.
Certain factors are among the most important in determining whether a consensual encounter with the police becomes an investigatory stop. These are:
To begin with – the police demonstrate their authority over you by activating the siren and overhead lights of their patrol car to conduct the stop. Once the stop is accomplished, other factors that impact the freedoms of the stopped person during the investigatory stop that occur during a traffic stop are:
Before the police may stop and question a driver of a motor vehicle that officer must have “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”
If the stop is ONLY FOR A TRAFFIC MATTER the officer may only “detain the driver long enough to check his driver’s license and vehicle registration and to issue a citation.” Therefore a traffic stop can “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop,” and the “scope of the detention must be carefully tailored to its underlying justification.”
So here is the rule of law:
At the point that the purpose of the investigatory stop is accomplished (the ticket is written for example) and there exists no further reasonable suspicion to support further detention implicating evidence of other crimes – the investigation is LEGALLY OVER and the police may not further detain the driver or passengers of the vehicle.
If further questioning occurs such questioning is permissible ONLY IF the initial detention becomes a consensual encounter.
This transition between the end of the investigatory stop and a subsequent detention can be the result of the implied agreement of the stopped person to continue answering questions and cooperating!
Most of us do not know we can leave the scene and refuse to cooperate further with the police. We are not aware that we are free to terminate the encounter. We do not comprehend a “clear endpoint to the investigative detention.”
The coercion that often occurs following what should be the natural or “legal end” of an investigatory stop is often subtle. For example – the police officer may ask a person during a traffic stop if the officer can search their car. This needs to be seen as the development of another phase of a method of continuous contact that began as a routine traffic stop and has morphed into what prosecutors will argue is a consensual encounter.
The Colorado Court of Appeals has held that this:
”extended contact must be reviewed by considering the facts and circumstances that gave rise to the initial stop plus any additional information learned by the officer Before issuing a warning or citation.”
The contact itself is analyzed for its duration and for the “conditions of the contact” (see above) are all viewed in the context of the entire stop.
Here is the rule of law as to your rights during this scenario:
An officer must return a driver’s documentation before a detention can end and a consensual encounter can begin. If the officer refuses to return these documents and actually retains the driver’s driver’s license and registration, then by definition, the driver is not free to leave.
If the person answers a police officer’s questions- this is NOT a consensual encounter. In addition – the mere return of a driver’s documentation is also – may not – by itself – be sufficient to establish that the police citizen encounter has become consensual.
If the police officer has returned your driver’s license and registration and then starts to question you about drugs, weapons, or asks for your voluntary consent to search your car, if you agree to answer those questions or permit a search of your car – the encounter will probably be viewed now as a “consensual encounter between a private citizen and a law enforcement official.”
Whether your “extended” interaction with the police was a consensual encounter or whether it was an investigatory stop for another purpose turns on whether the officer has reasonable suspicion or even probable cause to believe there is some form of criminal activity that will justify the right to extend the detention of a suspect.
If a Court find from the evidence that the continued police citizen contact was a consensual encounter or that it was supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the evidence produced to convict at a later trial on charges arising out of the discovery of the additional crimes – will be admissible against you.
On the other hand – if officers lack reasonable, articulable suspicion to detain a suspect for further questioning or investigation after issuing him a traffic summons and completing the traffic stop, then any evidence such as drug contraband seized from the suspects vehicle his vehicle was properly suppressed as the product of an illegal detention
In 2015 – at the time of this writing – Colorado – the law is this – while the Fourth Amendment does not require a search warrant or even probable cause to walk a narcotics detection dog around a car – that car must have been that lawfully stopped and the occupants lawfully or detained.
What this means is that if a traffic stop “is justified solely by an interest in issuing a traffic ticket to the driver” the stop cannot be prolonged beyond the time necessary to “reasonably require and complete that mission.”
Unless the citizen agrees – voluntarily – to a consensual encounter with the police – if the purpose for which an investigatory stop was initiated has been accomplished and there exists NO OTHER REASONABLE SUSPICION TO CONTINUE ANY FURTHER INVESTIGATION – any evidence discovered – whether that be the result of a narcotics dog or an illegal – non-consensual search – must be suppressed.
Again – reasonable suspicion is “the articulation of reasons to believe the person to be stopped is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a crime, beyond an inchoate and un-particularized hunch.” If it is not present after the traffic stop is complete – there is no justification for continued detention of citizens.
Stated another way – if the police lack reasonable articulable suspicion to detain a suspect for further questioning or investigation after issuing him a summons and completing the traffic stop, then ANY contraband seized from the suspect’s vehicle must be suppressed as the product of an illegal detention.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: H. Michael Steinberg – Email The Author at firstname.lastname@example.org – A Denver Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer – or call his office at 303-627-7777 during business hours – or call his cell if you cannot wait and need his immediate assistance – 720-220-2277. Attorney H. Michael Steinberg is passionate about criminal defense.
His extensive knowledge and experience of Colorado Criminal Law gives him the edge you need to properly handle your case. You must make a responsible choice for a Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer – we encourage you to look at our firm.
Over the last 30 plus years – H. Michael has mastered nearly every area of criminal law, procedure and trial and courtroom practice and he is passionate about getting you the best result in your case. He has written and continues to write extensively on Colorado criminal law and he hopes this article – – helps you in some small way. H. Michael hopes you found this page helpful – Colorado Criminal Law – Traffic Stops – Why You Should Always Refuse To Let The Police Search Your Car.