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Mixed Motive Traffic Stops Legal

 

The Washington State Supreme Court en banc recently ruled in their December 20, 2012 decision in State v. Arreola, that “mixed-motive” traffic stops are not in violation of Washington’s Constitution.  Washington law has held that pretext traffic stop are a violation of a driver’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Specifically, State v. Ladson, was the decision that held that using a minor traffic violation as a pretext for investigating another potential crime was a violation of the their rights.

A pretextual traffic stop occurs when a police officer relies on some legal authorization as “a mere pretext to dispense with [a] warrant when the true reason for the seizure is not exempt from the warrant requirement.” Ladson, 138 Wn.2d at 358. Because the right to privacy in such cases is disturbed without reasonable necessity and only in furtherance of some illegitimate purpose, pretextual stops “are seizures absent the ‘authority of law’” required by article I, section 7. Id. (quoting Const. art. I, § 7).

Under Washington Law, police officers must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity or a traffic violation in order to pull a car over in the first place.  In Arreola, the officer responded to a report of a possible DUI and started following a driver.  Although the officer did not notice any poor diving or other sign of intoxication, he did notice that the driver was driving a vehicle with an illegal exhaust.  The officer pulled the vehicle over and found evidence that the driver was intoxicated.

The court found that although the primary purpose of the stop was to investigate a possible DUI, the officer was also enforcing a legitimate traffic code put in place for the public safety and the officer would have pulled over the vehicle anyway, even if there was no possible DUI to investigate.

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