Most understand that a person is obligated to keep their vehicle in proper working order and this means regular service and inspection. The purpose of the inspection requirement in state like Pennsylvania is to ensure the car’s safety for the road which ultimately protects not only the driver but the public at large. If a person fails to maintain their vehicle, there’s a good chance that a police officer or other law enforcement will stop it (eventually). Police are permitted, obviously, to make traffic stops specifically to address a broken taillight, an illegal tint in a window, or even at an obstruction like a lucky charm (aka fuzzy dice) hanging from the rearview mirror.
Police, however, sometimes see that a car has a potential issue but stop it for some other reason. There are plenty of cars on the highway, however, which police don’t stop simply because they are focusing their attention on more pressing matters while on patrol. Stopping a car, however, with an ulterior motive is known as a pre-textual stop and it’s perfectly legal! A vehicle code violation gives the police officer probable cause to stop the car. Once the car is stopped the officer is permitted to investigate the cause of the issue which would require them to speak directly with the driver.
During this discussion the police officer will obviously explore his other suspicion especially if he stopped the car because he believes there was some other reason the vehicle was in the area. He is permitted to use the code violation to begin an investigation (the pretext). There’s nothing unconstitutional with the officer taking this approach and the United States Supreme Court specifically dealt with this issue in the case of Whren v. United States in 1996. In that decision, the unanimous Supreme Court held that the only Fourth Amendment Issue (illegal search and seizure) is whether there was probable cause to stop the car for the traffic infraction.
If you’re stopped for what you believe is pre-textual issue, it’s important that you provide the officer with your license and registration but not answer any further questions or consent to the search of your car. It’s also important that you specifically ask the officer why he is stopping you because this will be a critical piece of evidence to determine the issue of probable cause. If the officer didn’t have probable cause to stop the car or motor vehicle, anything found following the search could be deemed inadmissible (aka- fruit of the poisonous tree) as a violation of your Fourth Amendment Rights (Article I, Section 8 in Pennsylvania and Article I, Paragraph 7 in New Jersey.) This is asserted in a Motion to Suppress Evidence. This is critical motion especially in cases involving drugs, guns and even DUI.
It’s also important that your criminal defense attorney thoroughly investigate the reason for the stop and find out if it’s something that would normally lead to a traffic citation. Again, pre-textual stops are constitutional but police and law enforcement must satisfy the probable cause element of the Constitution. There are situations, however, where police only need reasonable suspicion to stop a car especially where the officer testifies that he believed the driver was under the influence (i.e. DUI, DWI) or falling asleep at the wheel. Again, this is why it’s important to ask for the reason for the stop!