Arizona Case Sheds Light on what a Police Officer may do at a Roadside Stop

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On December 8, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court heard opening arguments in a case that may have long-term implications for drivers nationwide. The matter in question, Arizona vs. Johnson, pertains to whether or not a police officer has the authority to pat down a driver in search of weapons — even if the driver is under no suspicion of committing or preparing to commit a crime.

The Supreme Court has struggled for nearly a century to determine how officers and drivers should interact at roadside stops. In 1925, the High Court decided a landmark case that diminished the scope of the “right to privacy” in the special case of automobile stops.

The constitutionality of a traffic stop usually hinges on interpretations of the Fourth Amendment. Previously, the court has had top grapple with how to treat drivers stopped for long periods of time, drivers found with suspicious items, and drivers in possession of weapons or firearms in compartments. Although the court has over the years tried to elucidate clear and easy-to-follow rules for how police and drivers should interact, this project has met with mixed success, to say the least.

In the case of Arizona vs. Johnson, an officer pulled over a motorist for driving a vehicle with suspended insurance. The officer suspected the driver was a gang member — a member of a local faction of the Crips in Tucson, Arizona — due to the neighborhood in which the stop occurred and the fact that the motorist was wearing traditional blue gang colors. However, the defendant did not exhibit any suspicious activity. Notwithstanding, the officer conducted a search and discovered that the driver was carrying a weapon and a stash of marijuana. Although the motorist was convicted of possessing the drugs and weapon illegally, his conviction was later overturned by a lower court, which deemed that his constitutional right to privacy had been unacceptably violated.

If you or a family member is currently involved in a Fourth Amendment privacy case or any other federal criminal defense issue, you need an attorney you can count on to deliver the best possible service.