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Gone fishing: freeway drug arrests

Casting out the line hundreds of times eventually pays off.
Many law enforcement officers dream of making a big drug bust. Selfies next to a mound of drugs and guns and cash. TV interviews, maybe a promotion. All chalked up to patient and diligent police work.

In reality, a lot of drug busts stem from freeway traffic stops that are more like fishing expeditions than investigations. Profiling drivers and playing the percentages. Catch-and-release until you land a big one.


As they camp on the roadside or cruise the interstate, officers are trained to look for supposed red flags of drug traffickers, such as out-of-state plates, rental cars, driving at or below the speed limit, tinted windows or “paranoid” behavior such as clutching the wheel and staring straight ahead.

None of these things are illegal or constitute reasonable suspicion. Neither is “driving while black or brown,” yet African-American and Hispanic drivers are far more likely to be subjected to traffic stops and searches. To avoid allegations of racial or ethnic profiling, interstate drug stops are commonly initiated on some other pretext such as a minor traffic infraction.

Setting the hook

Upon making a stop, the officer needs probable cause to detain the driver or conduct a search of the vehicle. Police reports often cite subjective observations such as “an odor of marijuana” or “nervous behavior.” That leads to grilling questions and requests that sound like commands. Where are you headed? Would you please step out of the car? Do you mind if I look in the trunk? Asserting your rights or refusing to comply reinforces the officer’s suspicions. And one thing leads to another.

In August, just across the border in Cleveland County, a couple was stopped on I-85 because of a bad brake light and failure to signal a lane change. The sheriff’s deputy said he smelled marijuana, and summoned the K-9 unit. The drug-sniffing dogs “hit” on the car, which led to the discovery of a trophy bust for marijuana and meth. All based on a turn signal?

We’re not fish. People have rights.

From the deputy’s perspective, persistence and intuition paid off. To a good criminal defense lawyer, it seems more like the dumb luck of fishing — a few “keepers” out of a 100 traffic stops.

If you are facing drug charges (or other criminal charges) after a traffic stop on I-85 in South Carolina, did law enforcement overstep its bounds? The Greenville attorneys at Ryan Beasley Law have successfully challenged interstate drug arrests on the basis of probable cause and unlawful searches in violation of the Fourth Amendment.


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