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Sloppy turn signal is not basis for stop, search and conviction

A Texas appeals court has thrown out the drug conviction of a man who was pulled over on the shaky excuse of being tardy in signaling a lane change.

The appellate court said that the trumped-up traffic violation did not justify a traffic stop and warrantless vehicle search that ultimately led to the man being sentenced for cocaine possession.

Police need a better reason to initiate a drug stop

Houston police had staked out a bar notorious for drug transactions. When Andreas Marcopolous left the bar, he failed to turn on his left blinker to signal a lane change until he was already in the intersection and starting his turn. It’s the kind of sloppy signaling that typically occurs hundreds of times every day. Nobody actually gets ticketed for turn signals.

A police officer following in an unmarked car called for a patrol car to make the traffic stop — solely on the basis of the improper turn signal. Marcopolous was forced to empty his pockets onto the hood of his truck. Officers then searched the interior of the truck, which turned up a small amount of cocaine.

A classic example of “fruit of the poisoned tree”

At trial, Marcolopolous sought to have the evidence suppressed, arguing that the traffic stop and vehicle search without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. After the judge rejected the motion, he ultimately admitted to drug possession and entered into a plea bargain.

The Texas Court of Appeals vacated the conviction, saying that police exceeded their authority in stopping the driver and searching his truck. The court concluded that Marcolopolus would probably not have pled guilty if the trial court had upheld his motion to suppress. Thus his conviction was almost entirely built on the flimsy turn signal traffic stop that should not have happened in the first place. Because of the great harm from the Fourth Amendment violation, he was granted a new trial.

This is not an isolated case, by any means

A high percentage of drug trafficking cases begin with traffic stops. Local law enforcement or the Highway Patrol will lie in wait for speeders or pull drivers over for violations such as expired tabs, broken taillights or failing to maintain the lane. During the traffic stop, they are observing the driver and the interior of the car for any indication of intoxication or drug possession.

If the driver is acting “suspicious” or if the officer perceives an odor of marijuana, for example, that may be the basis for a bodily search and vehicle search.

Most people do not know their rights or fear that they will arrested on the spot if they decline to consent to a search.