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

Above: A police officer at a DUI checkpoint.

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.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

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.

This story is part of an ongoing investigation by KPBS and Voice of San Diego.

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