What Constitutes Probable Cause for a Traffic Stop Search of Your Vehicle? - The Fernandez Firm
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What Constitutes Probable Cause for a Traffic Stop Search of Your Vehicle?

What Constitutes Probable Cause for a Traffic Stop Search of Your Vehicle?

If you have been charged with a crime (i.e., drug possession, among other things) due to evidence gathered during a traffic stop by Massachusetts law enforcement officers, then you should consult with a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.  Depending on the circumstances of the traffic stop, the officers may have illegally searched your vehicle, thus allowing you to prohibit the introduction of certain evidence and strengthening your overall defense.


How do traffic stops in Massachusetts work?  Understanding the interplay between reasonable suspicion, probable cause, and the circumstances at-issue can be difficult for those who are unfamiliar with the law, so let’s start from the beginning.


Reasonable Suspicion to Make a Traffic Stop


In the state of Massachusetts, law enforcement officers must first be able to articulate a reasonable suspicion that you have engaged in, are engaging in, or will engage in illegal activity before they can make a traffic stop.  The illegal activity itself need not be particularly severe to entitle the officers to make a traffic stop — in fact, law enforcement officers may stop you for simply driving at an excessive speed, failing to obey traffic signals, and other infractions.


Reasonable suspicion is not a high standard, thus giving Massachusetts law enforcement officers a great deal of discretion in making a traffic stop.  For the most part, a well-thought out defense strategy does not fundamentally depend on proving that an officer lacked reasonable suspicion, though making such an argument may be strategically useful in certain cases.


Traffic Stop Searches Require Probable Cause


Unfortunately, Massachusetts law enforcement officers do not need to secure a search warrant before searching your vehicle at a traffic stop.  The courts have found that requiring a search warrant for traffic stop searches would be unrealistic and difficult to implement in a manner that is actually helpful to law enforcement.  As such, Massachusetts entitles law enforcement officers to conduct a search of your vehicle at a traffic stop once they have established probable cause.


To put it in simpler terms, an officer must first establish reasonable suspicion in order to make a traffic stop, and must then establish probable cause in order to search your vehicle at the traffic stop.


What’s probable cause in the context of a traffic stop?


During a traffic stop of your vehicle, a law enforcement officer may establish probable cause that your vehicle may contain evidence of wrongdoing (i.e., possession of drugs, unlicensed and unregistered weapons, etc.) through a number of means.  Any illegal items that are in plain view of the officer may be used to establish probable cause, for example.  Alternatively, if you appear to be intoxicated, then that may be enough to establish probable cause to search your vehicle.


It is worth noting that Massachusetts courts have held that the smell of marijuana is not enough to establish probable cause.  It may not form the sole basis of probable cause.  if an officer searches your vehicle due to the smell of marijuana alone, then evidence gathered by the officer during such search may be subject to suppression.


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