The Power Of A Single Sentence: Traffic Stops

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(Fabio Arcila) I wonder how often the Supreme Court has nonchalantly wiped off the law books an entire jurisprudential debate with one blithe sentence. That is exactly what the Court did last term in Arizona v. Johnson, 129 S. Ct. 781 (2009). For very good reasons reflecting the Court’s own muddles, federal and state courts had for many years struggled to define the contours of the police’s search power during traffic stops, and unsurprisingly had come up with widely varying doctrinal formulations. In Johnson, a case that did not even directly raise the issue, the debate over those formulations largely vanished due to one sentence.

I became pretty familiar with the doctrinal morass involving traffic stops a few years ago when I got involved pro bono in helping to oppose a Fourth Amendment certiorari petition that Illinois had filed. The Supreme Court itself has caused the jurisprudential problem because its traffic stop cases are an analytical mess. The tension arises because the Court often wants to treat traffic stops a lot like consensual police encounters. That would allow police a large degree of flexibility. But traffic stops are not consensual encounters. Rather, they are involuntary, coerced encounters. Thus, when confronting traffic stops, the Court often has analogized to Terry stops.Terry “stop-and-frisks” allow police to compel brief, non-consenual, investigatory stops based upon reasonable suspicion. Because they involve involuntary stops, and based upon a lower threshold of suspicion that probable cause, which is the traditional Fourth Amendment standard, the scope of Terry stops are to be strictly limited so that these encounters remain brief, the public is not unduly burdened, and police cannot engage in fishing expeditions.

Illinois courts, like many state and federal courts, had struggled with how to reconcile this tension in the Court’s precedents. Like many such courts, those in Illinois chose to place greater primacy upon the Terry analogy. Consequently, Illinois courts had erected a rather detailed, demanding, but admittedly convoluted traffic stop jurisprudence that generally prohibited police from inquiring about, or seeking consent to search with regard to, matters or offenses unrelated to the reason for the traffic stop.

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If you receive a traffic ticket for violating one of these rules, it is advisable to consult an experienced attorney.


September 4, 2014 |

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