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Looking at the Fourth Amendment rules regarding motor vehicle stops, P.1

In our last post, we looked briefly at a case currently before the United States Supreme Court. As we noted, the case raises the issue of what exactly qualifies as reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify a brief investigative (Terry) stop, and whether a defendant who has been subjected to an illegal Terry stop is entitled to have evidence obtained as a result of the stop excluded from trial.

Fourth Amendment issues, or search and seizure issues, are important to explore in many criminal defense cases. Generally speaking, The Fourth Amendment requires that seizures/stops be reasonable. The first thing, therefore, a criminal defense attorney will look at when screening a case for Fourth Amendment issues will be whether a seizure occurred. 

When it comes to motor vehicle stops, case law has established specific conditions on exactly what qualifies as a stop. The key distinction to make is that a seizure/stop is different from police contact. The former is characterized by a show of authority or physical force which would make a reasonable person believe he or she was not free to leave. Ordinary police contact does not implicate the Fourth Amendment, and is not bound by Fourth Amendment requirements.

If a stop occurs, whether in the form of a full-on seizure or a brief investigative detainment, the Fourth Amendment is implicated and there must be either probable cause or reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. Temporary detainment of a driver doesn’t necessarily require probable cause, but only reasonable suspicion that a crime may be in progress or has been committed.

In our next post, we’ll look a bit more closely at how courts determine whether a motor vehicle stop is justified and why it is important to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to protect one’s rights.

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