3 ways law enforcement mishandle traffic stops in Illinois

Several common law enforcement officer mistakes related to a traffic stop could be useful in building a defense.

In early 2013, an Illinois state trooper pulled over a 33-year-old man who was driving a white sedan. According to the Bellevue News-Democrat, the trooper had received a tip that someone who in a similar vehicle would be delivering crack cocaine in that area.

During the stop, the trooper allegedly conducted a strip search of the man, examining the man's buttocks and testicles with a flashlight. While testifying in court, the trooper admitted he never called in the traffic stop, and he could not remember the traffic violation the man committed to warrant getting pulled over.

A St. Clair County Circuit Court judge will determine whether or not the trooper is guilty of aggravated battery during the traffic stop. Unfortunately, law enforcement all too often mishandle these stops, such as in these ways:

1. Lacking reasonable suspicion for the stop

The Illinois Department of Transportation reports that moving violations accounted for the majority of traffic stops in 2014. Those can include failing to use a turn signal, running a red light or speeding. Equipment-related stops - such as having two broken tail lights - and issues with the driver's license are also common reasons.

As the Illinois State Bar Association points out, law enforcement officers need only to have reasonable suspicion to pull over a vehicle. This is much more loosely defined than probable cause. However, an officer must still be able to demonstrate that he or she had a valid reason to stop a vehicle.

2. Conducting an illegal search

In most cases, law enforcement officers must have either a warrant or the driver's permission to search a vehicle. The only times an officer may search a vehicle without a warrant are the following:

  • The officer believes that his or her safety will be compromised without a search, such as a search for a hidden weapon.
  • The officer has probable cause that the vehicle has evidence of a crime.
  • The driver has been placed under arrest and the search is related to that arrest.

It is important to point out that, as a PBS report outlines, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 2014 that even if a law enforcement officer made a mistake of fact when pulling over a vehicle, any evidence collected during a search in that stop can still be used against the driver. However, the search that led to finding that evidence must still be lawful.

3. Improper sobriety testing

There are very clear written procedures that law enforcement must follow when pulling over someone suspected of drunk driving. Tests such as the walk-and-turn and one-leg stand involve systemic administration. Further, breath tests require officers to properly use the machine. Straying at all from these guidelines could result in the dismissal of any ensuing evidence.

There are several other ways an officer can fail a suspect's constitutional rights during a traffic stop in Illinois, such as using excessive force. People who believe their traffic stop was mishandled should consult with an attorney.