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Excessive Duration Turns Legal Traffic Stop into Fourth Amendment Violation, Unravels Drug Conviction

When the police pull you over for a traffic violation, they can investigate you for other crimes, including searching you and your vehicle, but only if they have probable cause to do so. If they do not have reasonable suspicion that you've committed some other crime, they cannot simply delay you indefinitely until probable cause emerges. A recent drug case decided by the Illinois Appellate Court demonstrated this principle, as a police officer's excessively slow handling of a traffic stop made his search of the accused's vehicle improper.

When the police pull you over for a traffic violation, they can investigate you for other crimes, including searching you and your vehicle, but only if they have probable cause to do so. If they do not have reasonable suspicion that you've committed some other crime, they cannot simply delay you indefinitely until probable cause emerges. A recent drug case decided by the Illinois Appellate Court demonstrated this principle, as a police officer's excessively slow handling of a traffic stop made his search of the accused's vehicle improper.

The case centered on the stop, search, and arrest of Abdullah Abdur-Rahim in January 2012. An Illinois State Trooper pulled Abdur-Rahim over after observing the driver following another vehicle too closely and crossing over the yellow line. While he had Abdur-Rahim stopped, he discovered the man's name was on a terrorist watch list. The trooper resolved the watch list issue and wrote warning tickets for the violations but, having possibly smelled the odor of marijuana coming from inside the man's truck, he directed the driver to exit the vehicle. Eventually a drug dog arrived the scene, alerted to the rear of the vehicle, and the officers discovered four duffel bags containing 5.5 kilograms of marijuana.

At trial, Abdur-Rahim asked the court to suppress the drug evidence against him. The trial court rejected that motion, ruling that, although the stop was somewhat long, it was not objectively so extreme as to be improper. The driver appealed.

On the surface, this might seem like an ordinary and legal stop and the conviction likely to stand. However, what made this stop different, and illegal, in the opinion of the appeals court, was not the actions of the trooper, but the time it took to carry out these tasks. The initial task of writing the warning tickets took only about 30 minutes. Even after the tickets were completed, the trooper did not return the man's driver's license. In total, the stop took 53 minutes, having dragged on for an extra 20+ minutes after the trooper addressed the traffic violations and terror list issues.

The appeals court concluded that, while the first 30 minutes was defensible, the final 20 minutes was the problem, turning the stop into a Fourth Amendment violation. Had the trooper been certain that he smelled marijuana, his subsequent actions would have been permissible. However, the officer testified at trial that he only had a vague perception of a smell that might be burnt marijuana. This uncertainty meant that the trooper lacked the probable cause to continue detaining Abdur-Rahim after he resolved the watch list and traffic violation issues.

Many possession of cannabis cases start as traffic stops. The law contains certain boundaries regarding when the police can, or cannot, search your vehicle as part of a traffic stop. If you're facing a drug charge, you need knowledgeable attorneys on your side to protect you from police actions that violate your rights. Talk to the DuPage County criminal defense attorneys at Martin & Kent to discuss your case. Our attorneys are here to help you put forward your best defense.

Contact us online or by calling (888) 388-9151 to schedule your confidential initial consultation at no charge.

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