When Police Can — and Can’t — Pull You Over

When Police Can — and Can’t — Pull You Over

Photo by Sam Hodgson

An SDPD officer makes a stop along Euclid Avenue in Valencia Park.

It makes sense that traffic stops often become the focal point for allegations of racial profiling. The enforcement of some traffic laws can be nebulous and discretionary, and stops tend to be the most frequent contact between the public and police.

Here’s a guide to the law on traffic stops:

When can the cops pull me over?

The cops can pull you over when they believe you’ve done something wrong.

That means they can identify you’ve violated one of the innumerable provisions of the California Vehicle Code. That can run the gamut from speeding, neglecting to use a turn signal, running a red light or driving with a broken taillight.

Or, the police need to have received a tip or enough other information about the particular characteristics of a person or vehicle potentially involved in a crime to justify pulling you over without having committed a crime in front of them.

For instance, if police have a description of a criminal suspect who is young, white, male, tall, wearing a baseball jacket and cap in a particular neighborhood, they should be within their rights to pull someone over who fits that profile.

The technical term for this is that police have to have “reasonable suspicion” you’re violating the law. Reasonable suspicion has no precise definition, but it has to be something supported by a collection of facts and not just an officer’s hunch. An officer witnessing you swerving could be reason enough to pull you over for a minor vehicle code violation – or to check if you’re drunk. An officer not liking the color of your car would not count.

When can’t the cops pull me over?

The cops can’t pull you over if they have no reason to believe you’ve done something wrong. So you have to actually be speeding, your taillight actually has to be out or you have to actually run a red light for police to have the right to stop you.

The police also can’t pull you over based on a general profile of a criminal suspect. Pulling over a young black male driver of a BMW if that’s all police have is likely too vague to be legal, according to “The Color of Justice,” a criminal justice textbook on race and policing.

The key distinction, the book says, is between police having specific reasons for a traffic stop versus general ones. The greater detail police have about a criminal suspect before they pull someone over, the more likely a stop involving someone matching that description is legal. That’s the case even if the stop doesn’t result in the cops finding the right guy.

These rules ultimately come from the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It protects people from unreasonable search and seizure by law enforcement and applies when police make traffic stops.

This seems more cut and dried than I thought. Is it?

No.

“If you follow anyone around long enough,” said San Diego traffic attorney Elizabeth Aronson, “you’re going to find that person violating vehicle code.”

This reality gives police officers a lot of discretion for when and who they decide to pull over. The law doesn’t remain static, either. Appellate courts make new decisions all the time governing what kinds of traffic stops are legitimate and what aren’t, Aronson said.

Depending on the judge involved in the case, the situation could go a number of ways, too. Technically, putting one of those little tree air fresheners on your rearview mirror could be considered a violation of the vehicle code that says drivers can’t have anything blocking their windshield view. A 26-year-old black engineering student told us he was pulled over for that very reason.

Aronson said she’s seen rearview mirror air freshener tickets laughed out of court. But she’s seen others where the driver with the offending air freshener is forced to pay a fine.

“You can have the same case before two different bench officers and have two different results,” Aronson said.

Do police ever pull people over without reasonable suspicion?

Yes. A 2010 traffic-stop-gone-wrong in City Heights is a good example of how complicated these situations can get.

The case led to a $450,000 settlement for two young black residents who alleged San Diego police wrongfully arrested them, used excessive force and violated their constitutional rights.

San Diego police officers Ariel Savage and Daniel McClain were patrolling along University Avenue in City Heights when they spotted a maroon 2005 Pontiac Sunfire. The neighborhood, the officers noted in their report, had seen a lot of car thefts recently. Officers have access to a computer database with license plate numbers and car registrations, and can check to see if plates match the vehicles to which they’re registered. Savage and McClain checked the Sunfire’s plates. U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Battaglia took no issue with the officers doing that in a key ruling he issued in the case last spring.

Savage and McClain found the vehicle with that plate wasn’t a Sunfire, so they turned on their lights and pulled over the car. In his ruling, Battaglia said that was fine, too. At that point, Savage and McClain believed the Sunfire might be stolen and had reasonable suspicion to make the stop.

But before the officers went to speak with the people in the Sunfire, they re-checked the plate and found they’d made a mistake when they typed it in the first time. The plate actually did match the Sunfire.

Savage got out of his car to say the officers had messed up. But he also asked for the driver’s license, registration and insurance. That, Battaglia said, was inappropriate.

“Having no objectively reasonable suspicion that illegal activity had occurred or was occurring, Officer Savage’s actions in questioning the Plaintiffs and requesting license, registration and proof of insurance lacked reasonable suspicion and exceeded the limits of a lawful investigative detention in violation the Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights,” Battaglia wrote in his decision.

In other words, once the officers had no reason to believe the people in the car had done anything wrong, they couldn’t detain them. It’s the same reason that cops can’t just randomly pull people over and ask to see their driver’s license.

Where does racial profiling fit in to all this?

It’s easy to see how questions of adequate reasonable suspicion could lead to racial profiling. There’s no absolutely clear standard for when race is a valid element of a larger, particular criminal description or just a general characteristic not combined with enough other details to be lawful.

Aronson said prospective clients frequently come in and talk to her about racial profiling. She first looks to see what their traffic ticket was for.

“If you’re going 60 in a 35, you’re going to get pulled over no matter what,” she said.

She’s more sensitive to claims of racial bias when she sees tickets for things like rearview mirror air fresheners, particularly if she notices the same officers are writing those citations.

For the same reasons racial profiling complaints often come from traffic stops, it’s hard to prove racial profiling happens at a traffic stop. Officers typically can offer plenty of reasons for why they pulled someone over even if, consciously or not, race was really an overriding factor.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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20 comments
elifazg
elifazg subscriber

i got pull over 2 mouths ago and did not have my license or registration for my car, but he let me off with a wondering , so know he stop me again but this time the car was register but i still did not have my licenses,

and the reason he stop me was because he remember me, just wandering was that a reason why i should   gotten  pull over and ginning me a ticket? 

Buddy
Buddy subscriber

Speeding is one thing - that's something that can be measured at least and has a tangible effect on safety. What about all the other "crimes", like turn signals? My son has gotten NUMEROUS tickets over the past year for all these crazy things (he's 24 now). Muffler violation (driving my car to pick up some presents on Christmas Eve, no less), turn signal, unsafe road entry, yada, yada. You couldn't get this many tickets if you tried. About every 2 months or less he's gotten something. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars in fines. I know he's being profiled, now how to prove it.

Mike Delahunt
Mike Delahunt subscriber

So what about random checkpoints where drivers have done nothing wrong? Where's the ACLU on that one? I guess they're just not interested unless there's a racial component to exploit.

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

Driving the speed-limit isn't that hard. Neither is coming to a complete halt at a stop sign.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Speed limits are set lower than the average speed just so cops will have a reason to pull anyone over they want, and if that doesn't work they can simply lie, the judge will always take a cops word over a civilians.

Cops can do whatever they want to and generally get away with it, and they do.

pkennedy1997
pkennedy1997 subscriber

@Mike Delahunt On a DUI checkpoint, it is all fine as long as officers pull over every race equally and treat them equally. They tend NOT to. When they pull over a minority they act differently, treat us differently, even talk to us differently, with an attitude that they ASSUME we're doing something wrong. White female lawyers who get pulled over for minor little things get a better tone of voice from the officer than they way they talk to minorities. Different treatment of the person they pull over as soon as they see the skin color, that's what makes the difference. 

Mike Delahunt
Mike Delahunt subscriber

So that makes it ok? What is your point? Welcome to America, Felix.

Felix Tinkov
Felix Tinkov subscribermember

Random checkpoints are legal for limited purposes - for example, DUI checks.

pkennedy1997
pkennedy1997 subscriber

@Bit-watcher And even if you do these things, if you're a minority they will find some other minute little trivial reason to pull you over.  They will dig to the back of the law books from decades ago if they have to, to find some obscure little "violation" you've allegedly committed. 

Stuart Morse
Stuart Morse subscriber

Derek, I would be in favor of no speed limits in many areas. Very crowded areas, it makes sense to have a speed limit. If, however, the driver is being safe, I don't see why it matters if they are going 75 or 85 mph.
My point was to point out that in an environment where there is no speed limit, there are actually less fatalities. This seems to indicate that speed limits, at least on highways, do not make the roads safer.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

"The 85% rule is well founded, and not followed here because of revenue and right to harass that artificially low speed limits afford the cops."

Where's your evidence of this? What figures have you seen about the city's revenue from speeding tickets? What suggests to you that cops harass those who drive faster than "artificially low speed limits"? Is your evidence anecdotal? Have you often been pulled over yourself for this?

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Without police enforcement, the average driving speed is set by people who overestimate their abilities. Therefore, speed limits are set lower than what people who overestimate their abilities want to drive, which is how it should be.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

On a well-designed grade-separated highway like the Autobahn, with laws and enforcement that keep slow moving vehicles to the right like in Europe, and laws prohibiting running out of gas like on the Autobahn, it can be safe to drive at faster speeds. But those conditions don't all exist here in California.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Gosh Randy, how great a news site VOSD would be if you applied the standards of critical reporting you are demanding of me to your own work!

Look at California's own chapter 2b of MUTCD 2003 California Supplement for what they say about 85% and speed traps, then go take your own traffic survey and tell me what you find. Get the heck out of the peanut section and be that investigative reporter SD needs.

As far as me being pulled over, I am neither a black guy driving an expensive car, a druggie looking guy in a beater or a hot girl, so I don't get pulled over very often, even though I do exceed the speed limit keeping up with the flow all the time. Go figure.



Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Stuart, speed limits don't apply on the Autobahn. One reason it's so safe is because they prohibit passing on the left, so everybody cruises in the right lane unless they need to pass someone. Would you be in favor of a similar law in the USA?

Stuart Morse
Stuart Morse subscriber

Derek, doesn't the fact that the Autobahn in Germany is far safer than the roads in the USA undermine the premise of your argument? Check the deaths per billion KMs driven. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_autobahns#SafetyGerman autobahns - Wikipedia, the free encyclopediahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_autobahns#SafetyThe German autobahns ( German: Autobahn, plural Autobahnen ) form the federal controlled-access highway system in Germany. The official German term is Bundesautobahn (plural Bundesautobahnen , abbreviated BAB), which translates as "federal motorway"....

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Nonsense, the study you linked to has nothing to do with driving speeds, it just has to do with people not being willing to admit they are below average.

Of course if someones main purpose is to simply be anti car they can post all kinds of silly stuff...

The 85% rule is well founded, and not followed here because of revenue and right to harass that artificially low speed limits afford the cops.

James Weber
James Weber subscriber

@Derek Hofmann If they prohibit passing on the left and everyone drives in the right lane, no one ever passes anyone.

lmichaelj
lmichaelj subscriber

@Derek Hofmann Actually, Mr. Hofmann, after living in Germany for 20 years, I can tell you that there are speed limits on the Autobahn.  The maximum speed is actually 160 kph, and slower speeds are frequently posted for dangerous curves, steep descents, and through populated areas such as from one end of a city to the other.  In a very few areas you can exceed the 160 kph, but those routes and distances of those routes are very, very limited.  Also, you also have stated the no passing rule exactly backwards.  Passing is prohibited on the right, not the left in Germany.  There are many, many rules for driving in Germany with over 90+ information signs that need to be learned such as when to pass or not.  Right of way is the number one rule in Germany, and solves many issues while driving on the autobahn as well as off of the autobahn. Fines are very high in Germany, and with most Germans being very frugal, those are also a deterrent. First offenses run in the 500 - 750 Euro range, and often include confiscating the automobile immediately.  That roughly translates according to today's exchange rate to $680 - $1020+ dollars, as well as towing and impound fees, court costs, lawyers, etc., added on top of those fines. 


There is also a moral compass to the majority of the German population which is quite strong, that recognizes rules are there for a reason.  I have held a United States Army Europe (USAREUR) driver's license, as well as a German driver's license.  The Germans expect a far greater knowledge of one's automobile, as well as first aid.  Both are tested.  German highways, for the most part, are also highly engineered and very well maintained. Older roads are constantly being replaced and upgraded.