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Understanding Your Rights During a Traffic Stop 

Understanding Your Rights During a Traffic Stop 

 One of the most common police interactions with the average person is a traffic stop. Traffic stops occur when a law enforcement officer pulls over a car for either a traffic violation or for a criminal investigation. Most traffic stops fall in the first category—the stop begins because of a traffic violation. However, these traffic stops occasionally transition into a criminal investigation, like Driving While Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUI) investigation or a drug investigationWhat the officer sees at the beginning of the stop strongly influences whether the stop will remain a traffic stop or transition to a criminal investigation. This article intends to help individuals understand their rights protected by the Oregon Constitution during a traffic stop.  

Article I, section 9, of the Oregon Constitution states: “No law shall violate the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search, or seizure; and no warrant shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath, or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be seasrched, and the preson or thing to be seized.” This is similar to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” However, the greatest difference between the Oregon Constitution and the U.S. Constitution is the way it has been interpreted over the years. The Oregon Supreme Court, which has the last say in how to interpret the Oregon Constitution, has interpreted Article I, section 9, more expansively than how the Fourth Amendment is interpreted. This means there are typically more protections against searches and seizures under the Oregon Constitution than there are under the United States Constitution.  

A seizure under the Oregon Constiution occurs when a law enforcement officer or other state agent restricts a citizen’s freedom of movement or liberty. A traffic stop is a seizure because it restricts the driver’s freedom of movement. Because a traffic stop is a seizure, the Oregon Supreme Court has held that there are limitations to what an officer can do and ask during a traffic stop. Under a recent case, State v. Arreola-Botello, 365 Or. 695, 451 P.3d 939 (2019), the Oregon Supreme Court overturned a doctrine established by the Oregon Court of Appeals. This overturned doctrine was called the “unavoidable lull” doctrine. To better understand the importance of State v. Arreola-Botello, we need to understand the unavoidable lull doctrine. 

Under multiple cases by the Oregon Court of Appeals, there was a rule that allowed police officers to ask any questions they want without restriction so long as they did not “extend the stop.” What this meant was that while the officer is waiting for the individual to get their license, registration, and proof of insurance, the officer could ask questions about anythingSome questions are smalltalk, like “did you catch the Blazers game?” Other questions were geared towards finding information about illegal activity, like “Do you have any drugs in your car?” or “are there any weapons in the vehicle?” Under the unavoidable lull doctrine, the officer did not need to have a suspicion that there were drugs or weapons in the car; they could ask those questions regardless. The questions could not, however, make the stop take longer than necessary to fill out the traffic citation. This meant that if an officer had ended the traffic stop by issuing a ticket and then began asking questions of the driver, the officer would be violating the individual’s right against unlawful seizures.  

This rule changed in Arreola-Botello. Rather than saying that an officer can ask any questions he or she would like so long as they do not make the stop last too long, the court said that the officer must keep the focus of the conversation on the purpose of the traffic stop. This means that if an officer pulls an individual over for speeding, they cannot start asking about drugs in the car without seeing drugs or drug paraphernalia (think needles, meth pipes, items like that). That is, the officer develops reasonable suspicion or probable cause—what the Oregon court described as “independent constitutional justifications”—then the officer may ask questions about what they sawAnother example is if an officer pulls over an individual for speeding, and upon arriving at the passenger side window notices an open beer can in the driver’s cupholder, then the officer may ask questions about driving under the influence of alcohol. This is because an officer likely would have developed a reasonable suspicion that there the driver may be intoxicated based on the officer’s observations 

In summary, police officers should limit their questions to the purpose of a traffic stop unless they have at least a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct. If you believe that an officer started asking random questions during a traffic stop and you are charged with a criminal offense, call our office to speak with one of our attorneys.