When can a police officer stop me in my car?

Boise Idaho Police StopAs a criminal defense lawyer in Boise, Idaho, I often get asked, when can a police officer stop me in my car? In a prior blog post I talked about when a police officer can search your car, but before an officer can search your car, it goes without saying that he has to stop you first. But can a police officer stop whomever he wants to stop? I know it may seem like that they can at times, but the answer is no, a police officer can not stop you for just any reason.

The general rule is that if a police officer wants to stop your vehicle, or in legal terms seize you and your vehicle, he needs to have, what is called by the courts, reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. This rule is derived from a United States Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. Consequently, this type of stop has come to be known as a Terry Stop.

Sometimes you will hear the reasonable articulable suspicion standard shortened to just reasonable suspicion, usually it is a law enforcement officer who shortens the term. All three words are very important though.

Suspicion is something we all experience on a daily basis. Many times our suspicion is based on a gut feeling we have. And conveniently enough, often our gut feeling is right. I have learned to rely heavily on my gut feelings in my personal and professional life. Most of the time we really cannot articulate what it is that gave us the gut feeling, but we rely on the feeling anyway, and for many of us, it turns up good results.

A police officer is not allowed to rely solely on a “gut feeling” as a basis for stopping someone. The United States Supreme Court has said exactly that; a law enforcement officer cannot rely solely on a gut feeling, or mere suspicion. A police officer is not allowed to do what you and I do every day. In order to be justified in stopping a vehicle, and detaining the person in that vehicle, he must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion. What articulable means, is that he has to be able to tell the judge, with articulable language, what specific facts gave him the suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. For example, he could say, the vehicle was speeding, or the plate’s tags were expired, or the car changed lanes without using its blinker, or the car was swerving dangerously, etc. etc. But if the officer fails to articulate specific facts, or if the specific facts he articulates would not lead a reasonable police officer to believe that criminal activity has occurred, or is about to occur, then he has not articulated grounds for stopping someone. A common example of this is weaving within a lane. Many times officers use this as a basis for stopping a vehicle. However, there are many times where the weaving within a lane is not significant enough to amount to a reasonable articulable suspicion that the driver was drunk or inattentive. Slight deviations within a lane are to be expected, and so the weaving would have to be substantial enough to amount to reasonable articulable suspicion that the person was drunk or was inattentive in his driving, since the activity of weaving itself is not illegal. Sometimes the specific facts are not instances of illegal conduct themselves, however they may lead an officer to infer that criminal activity has occurred, or is about to occur. This inference can be based on the totality of the circumstances. For example, it is not illegal to park your car outside a bank; it is not illegal to sit in your parked car outside a bank; it is not illegal to possess an empty burlap bag in your car outside a bank; it is not illegal to wear a ski mask while parked in your car outside a bank; and it is not illegal to have a shotgun in your car while you are parked outside a bank (at least in Idaho). However, all of these facts taken together, could lead any reasonable officer to infer that a bank robbery is about to go down. This would be a clear example of when an officer would have a basis to stop you in your car and investigate further. The remedy for an officer stopping you without reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity is that the evidence gained as a result of the stop will be suppressed. If the officer does not find any evidence as a result of the illegal stop, the typical result is you drive away angry, and the officer goes on his merry way. Of course you may have a legal claim against him for violating your civil liberties, but the difficulty of bringing that type of claim against the state dissuades most people from ever trying. In other words, if you really were doing something wrong, then you can get off by having the evidence suppressed. If you were innocent of any wrong doing, you effectively have no remedy.




Boise, Idaho Criminal Defense Attorney

Craig Atkinson is the lead attorney at Atkinson Law Office,
Boise DUI and Criminal Attorneys. It is located at 1087 W River St #290, Boise, ID 83702. You can call him anytime at 208.571.0627.

Ask Craig to review your case.

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  1. I recently got stopped for a DWP. I was obeying the speed limit. Not weaving in and out of traffic or doing anything suspicious. The officer gave me no reason as to why he pulled me over. After reading the police report the officer stated he ran a routine records check and the records check indicated that the registered owner, me, had a suspended Idaho drivers license. How does the “routine records check” affect the reasonable articulable suspicion that you are talking about?

    • Jeremy,
      I have never dealt with that particular issue. I did some quick research and did not come up with any case law addressing that particular issue. My gut feeling is you should move to suppress the evidence.
      If the officer had stopped you on a previous occasion, or was somehow able to identify you from previous contacts, then I could see where there would be an argument that he had reasonable articulable suspicion that you were driving without privileges.
      But since your situation seems to be a situation where the officer was basing his stop merely on the fact that the vehicle belonged to you, and he knew your privileges were suspended, then it seems unreasonable to stop the vehicle every time he sees your vehicle traveling down the road. Maybe your mom, or sister, or brother, or father are driving the car. Do they have to risk being pulled over every time they drive your vehicle? I don’t think that’s reasonable. Where are you from? Idaho? Have you entered a plea yet?

  2. I do live in Idaho. I have entered a not guilty plea which I know to always do even if I was guilty so I could have the possibility of getting a reduction in sentence or time. And the police report also states that the person driving the vehicle matched the description of the registered owner.

    • How did the officer know that the driver matched the description of the registered owner? I would need more information. I can’t imagine he had enough information about your description to know that it was you driving. Sounds like he is putting in the report what he knows needs to be in the report.
      Give me a call and set up an appointment with my receptionist. My initial consultations are free. Bring your police reports, and I’ll try to give you some better direction.

      • Included in the discovery is a ForceCom Web ptintout that has my DMV record which has a very basic description of me hair, eyes, height, weight DOB. And of course my Driving record.

  3. I wanted to respond to Jeremy. Supreme court has ruled that it is reasonable for an officer to believe the registered owner of the vehicle is also the driver unless it is obvious that they are different people (male owner/ female driver). Tip for the future, don’t drive on suspended.

  4. My boyfriend got pulled over while driving our friends car and he didn’t have his drivers license on him. His friend called me and told me to bring it down, and when I got there ten minutes later they had my boyfriend in the back of the cop car. I gave them his license and insurance and they told me he was back there because he was driving without a license on him (when they knew I was on my way. They were searching the car, didn’t let him out after they had ran it and he was valid, took the keys out of the ignition and unlocked the trunk. Then they took out a backpack that had two locks on the zippers so you couldn’t unzip it, and they cut it

    • open with a knife. All of this unlocking and cutting with out permission, and when they were looking through the backpack they found a bag of drugs. They told me that they were arresting my boyfriend because he was the driver of the car who is responsible for the car and things in it which I know, but they also arrested Jeremy (our friend who owned the car, and was with my boyfriend in the car) for the drugs. Then when I went to bail down Dan he had been charged with the fallowing: Possession of a mutilated drivers license 49-331, Offenses by person owning or controlling vehicle 49-1402, Failure to fasten safety restraint 49-67303 (which was untrue), failure to display license plates 49-428, operating vehicle without registration 49-456cd?, failure to carry registration in vehicle 49-427, and failure to show proof of insurance to law enforcement 49-1232 (which was untrue also because I was the one who gave it to them and they did not return.) They also kept his license which was a Washington license and had a bend on the corner. The prosecutor of Benewah County did like a 6 month delay on these charges and as long as Dan got an Idaho license and showed it to the clerk with in six months. On the paper the prosecutor wrote there was no probable cause to prove it and as long as Dan got the license his charges would be dismissed. Well Jeremy moved for a suppression of evidence hearing in his case this past week and the judge denied it. He said that since Jeremy eventually admitted to the drugs being his after they arrested him while being interrogated that it was enough to deni the suppression request.. They offered him drug court and the felony would be gone, but my gut feeling is that none of that was legal. Even though long this is still not the whole story into detail. (I think the details are the most important) He has a public defender that is all buddy-buddy with the prosecutor, and doesn’t listen to anything we say, so I am looking for help in the best places I can find. So anything to help would be great! Thanks for your time!

  5. I have a question…I was parked on the side of the road in front of a house…an officer pulled up behind me…and long story short I was arrested for dwop the officer never saw me driving my vehicle can he arrest me for this?

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