In Idaho can a police officer make a traffic stop for any reason he wants?

Technically? No.  Practically?  Pretty much.

According to the fourth amendment and its accompanying constitutional interpretation by the United States Supreme Court, as well as well settled case law in Idaho, in order for a police officer to stop your vehicle he or she must have reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  Absent such reasonable articulable suspicion, the officer must not stop your vehicle, and if he or she does it is an unlawful stop and any evidence of a crime that he or she may find thereafter will be suppressed as ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’.

So that sounds pretty fair and just, the officer must have a lawful reason to stop you, or he will not be able to use any evidence he collects when he stops you illegally.  But in practice, the legislature and courts have written and interpreted the laws regarding motor vehicles so broadly that only the most incompetent of police officers could not find a lawful reason for stopping your motor vehicle.

And bear in mind, the reason that the police are stopping you may obviously not be the real reason they are stopping you.  This is known as a ‘pre-textual stop’.  So for example, you are driving your car at 2 AM in the morning, and the officer wants to stop you to see if you have been drinking.  He can find an unrelated reason to pull you over (e.g. tail light out) just so can stop you and see if you’ve been drinking.  It is well settled law that pre-textual stops are perfectly legal. The officer doesn’t even have to charge you with the pre-textual reason he stopped you, and very often they do not.

Here are some examples of laws that are frequently used by police officers in Idaho to justify stopping your vehicle.

Idaho Code 49-808 (Turning Movements and Required Signals):

This statute deals with turn signals.  The statute mandates that “On controlled-access highways and before turning from a parked position, the signal shall be given continuously for not less than five (5) seconds and, in all other instances, for not less than the last one hundred (100) feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.” Courts have interpreted this to mean that on highways that have exits and onramps, you must leave your turn signal on for at least five seconds before making a turning movement.  This also applies if you a turning from a parked position, for example if you are turning out from being parallel parked on the side of the street.  That means that if you only signaled for 4 seconds before making the movement, then you have violated the law, and the officer can stop your vehicle.  Now take out your stop watch and watch five seconds pass by.  Now imagine waiting that long before changing lanes on the freeway. You will quickly see that if an officer wanted to stop you, all he would have to do is follow you long enough to see you make this mistake that so many driver’s make.  And sometimes it’s not even a mistake, its a necessary maneuver when traffic is changing so quickly.

Next, the statute requires that on all other roadways that you signal for 100 feet before turning.  Now the fact of the matter is, in many instances, especially in the city, this is next to impossible.  If you are traveling in slow moving traffic in down town Boise, it is impossible to wait until you have traveled 100 feet with your turn signal on before changing lanes, or turning.  Again, an officer that wants to stop you only needs to follow you for a few minutes before you will be forced to make this maneuver, and then he will have his lawful basis to stop you.

Idaho Code 49-644 (Required Position and Method of Turning):

This statute deals with how you should behave when you turn your motor vehicle.  This is a favorite of police officers, because it’s a common way to drive, and most people do not realize it is illegal.  Again, it is also sometimes necessary if you have an immediate second turn you need to make.

Most driver’s know that when you are turning left that you need to turn into the closest lane of travel, otherwise you may run into a vehicle coming the opposite direction who is lawfully turning right.  However, what driver’s don’t realize is, you have to do the same when turning right.  The code requires that ‘Both the approach for a right turn and the right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right hand curb or edge of the roadway’.  Courts have interpreted this to mean you must remain in the closest lane to the curb.  If you take a right turn, and swing into the lane further from the curb, you are in violation of this statute.  This gives a police officer a lawful reason to pull you over.

Idaho Code 49-637 (Driving on Highways Laned for Traffic)

This is a very frequently used statute for stopping vehicles, especially if you are out past 2AM. The statute requires you to ‘drive as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from that lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made with safety’.  Follow any car, on any road, day or night, and count how many times it touches one of the lines marking the lanes of travel.  Each time a car touches one of those lines marking the lanes of travel, they have violated 49-637.  Again, it doesn’t take very many minutes of an officer following your vehicle for you to make this mistake.  It’s even more likely to happen when a police officer is tailing you because you are nervously watching the officer in your rearview mirror, and are bound to let your vehicle drift just enough to touch or cross these lines.  The officer then has the reasonable articulable suspicion he needs to stop your vehicle.

Idaho Code 49-119(19)(Definition of Roadway) and 49-630 (Drive on Right Side of Roadway):

These two codes combine to form a reason similar to the last code discussed.  This combination of codes is used to stop someone for crossing over the ‘fog line’.  Courts have ruled that anything on the other side of the fog line is not the ‘roadway’ as defined in 49-119, and so is a violation of the requirement of 49-630 to always drive on the ‘roadway’.  And so if you touch or cross over the fog line, you have given a police officer reason to stop your vehicle.

Equipment Violations

Equipment Violations are one of most frequently used reasons a police officer stops a vehicle.  They like these because they are easy to spot, and they are objective.  Credibility really isn’t an issue because the equipment violation can be easily documented.

The following remaining examples are these types of equipment violations.

Idaho Code 49-949 (Requirement as to Fender or Covers Over All Wheels on Motor Vehicles)

This code deals with fenders and mud flaps.  It’s a complicated statute, but it essentially says that a truck has to have mud flaps if the finder is 10” above the roadway when the truck is unloaded.  The Courts have interpreted the word ‘trucks’ to include ‘pickup trucks’.  Consequently even if you have a stock pickup truck, with no lift, if the fender is more than 10” off the road, you need to have a mud flap that makes up the difference.  Saying you purchased the pickup truck that way from the manufacturer is not a defense.

Also this code requires fender flares if you put on after market tires and wheels that extend out past the fender.  If the tires extend out past the fender, then they can stop you for violating 49-949.

If an officer wants to stop you, and he sees a violation of this statute, he will have a lawful basis to stop you.

Idaho Code 49-944 (Standards for Windshields and Windows of Motor Vehicles)

This law covers tinting of car windows and windshields.  It is a complicated statute, with many different technical requirements.  You may want to read it if you have tinting on your window to make sure you are within regulations.  The police will use that is an excuse to stop you.

Idaho Code 49-937 (Mufflers, Prevention of Noise)

Another low hanging fruit for the police to grab at is a noisy muffler.  The reason that this is a violation that the police will often use is because it is hard to quantify how loud your muffler is.  So accusing you of having a loud muffler is a perfect infraction to accuse you of to pull you over, because you will have difficulty proving that it isn’t.

Idaho Code 49-902 (Vehicle Equipment)

This code has made ii unlawful to operate a motor vehicle that has equipment that is in an ‘unsafe condition’.  The Idaho Court of Appeals held that a cracked windshield is a condition that makes the vehicle unsafe to drive. (See State v. Kinser, 112 P.3d 845, 141 Idaho 557 (Idaho App. 2005))  Even when the crack is on the passenger side of the vehicle.  So if a police officer sees a cracked windshield, he can stop your vehicle, and it will be a lawful stop.

This statute could be used in other scenarios as well, such as busted tail lights, and headlights that are burned out.

So next time you hear it said that the fourth amendment protects American citizens from unreasonable seizures, just remember that the Idaho legislature, and Idaho Appellate Courts have ensured that almost any stop the officers make will be deemed reasonable.

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