The number of stories is almost staggering. Search for “drug charges I-85” online and you’ll get page after page of results from recent years. There are many stories and press releases about officers arresting individuals for drugs after traffic stops on Interstate 85. It’s not an accident.
As a story by the Greenville News makes clear, law enforcement officers make a concerted effort to monitor the busy highway as part of an effort known as Operation Rolling Thunder. And these agencies are going to great lengths to find a reason to look in an individual’s vehicle. As one deputy explained to the reporter, “Nearly everyone does something illegal if you follow them long enough.”
According to the story, officers stopped numerous vehicles during the course of an afternoon, including passenger cars, a trailer and a charter bus. Sometimes officers found drugs – other times, nothing. For many of these stops, law enforcement used minor violations as an opportunity to stop and search a vehicle. That included citations for:
- Following too closely
- Briefly drifting into another lane
- A failure to signal
- Improper lane change
But is this legal?
Probable cause and traffic stops
A law enforcement officer can not pull somebody over simply because they feel like it. They have to have probable cause to do so. A traffic violation may be considered probable cause even if the violation is minor. An officer having a hunch someone might be breaking the law, or basing the stop on the driver’s physical characteristics, is unlawful.
A similar principle extends to vehicle searches. A law enforcement officer can not search a vehicle on a whim. Certain legal criteria must be met.
However, officers sometimes overstep their bounds. They may pull over a driver or search their vehicle without having legitimate probable cause. In these cases, any evidence they gathered from an unlawful stop or search may potentially be dismissed if challenged in court. If you’ve been stopped and believe any part of what happened was unlawful, you may want to speak with a lawyer as soon as possible.
This holds true whether you’re pulled over in a town by a local police officer, or stopped on I-85 as part of a zealous law enforcement crackdown.