An inoperable brake light or speeding can lead to a journey through Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. According to an Appeal and Spotlight Pennsylvania investigation, State Police used pretextual stops for minor traffic violations to search for illegal drugs. Asserting a prompt criminal defense is important to assure that rights are protected.
Highway interdiction involves looking for drugs along highways and major roads. Police use pretextual stops, pulling motorists over for alleged traffic violations, in this enforcement.
These stops are generally legal. But there are limits on investigations and how long people may be detained. Police must have more than a mere suspicion that a crime is being committed.
There must be some proof such as the smell of marijuana or visible drug paraphernalia when police look in the vehicle through a window. Police often question people when this evidence is unavailable.
Traffic stops analyzed
Thirty-two traffic stop cases were reviewed from 2016 to 2020 involving a state police interdiction unit in Cumberland, Franklin, and Dauphin Counties. Eight of these cases were dismissed by courts because police did not establish probable cause. There are motions to dismiss pending in nine other cases. Over a third of the cases were sealed from disclosure because charges were dismissed or withdrawn.
To justify stopping a vehicle, state police often claimed that a motorist was nervous, sweating or eating. In one case, police said that a dollar-sign tattoo on a man’s neck justified a detention and a canine search.
Police also repeated the same language in legal documents filed in different cases to justify their search even though there were different circumstances. This practice also violates their training.
The investigation claimed that people were held longer than legally permitted. Police held one man for almost two hours before he was arrested.
In another case involving a stop for speeding and an unlit license plate, state police detained two men for six hours while they searched the owner’s vehicle. They based the search on conflicting statements by the car’s occupants. Police ultimately found a small amount of heroin hidden in a DVD case.
In other cases, people had limited ability to object to vehicle searches. K-9 units were summoned if a motorist objected.
A black person was charged in over half of the cases reviewed by news organizations. However, black people comprise only 10 percent of the population in these three counties. State police stopped collecting race data from traffic stops but said they will restart this practice.
Defendants may agree to plea bargains to avoid harsher penalties. Legal representation should be sought as soon as possible in these cases, however, to assure that your rights are protected.