Can the Police Make a Traffic Stop in Maryland if You’re Driving in an Unusual, But Not Illegal, Manner?

If you’re familiar enough with policing, you know that a significant number of criminal arrests start out as traffic stops. Some law enforcement officers, armed only with their own intuition, will do their very best to concoct a reason to make a traffic stop because they believe they can get substantial proof of a crime… if they can just get you pulled over. Many times, though, these kinds of traffic stops are violations of the Fourth Amendment. If you’ve been arrested as a result of an improper traffic stop, you may be able to get all the evidence the police seized tossed, but you’ll have to win a suppression argument to do it. When it comes to this and other critical elements of your criminal trial, make sure you have the legal representation you need from an experienced Maryland criminal defense lawyer.

Most people are aware of the broad stereotype that people under the influence of marijuana drive very slowly. Comedic actor Tommy Chong once remarked, “Everybody worries about driving when you’re stoned. No! Not gonna hurt anybody going five miles an hour!” Law enforcement officers are aware of this, too.

As a recent drug crimes case demonstrates, though, just driving very slowly down a highway does not, by itself, amount to the required degree of “reasonable articulable suspicion” that the constitution requires in order for a police officer to make a traffic stop.

The case began when a Talbot County deputy was traveling down a four-lane stretch of Route 50 near Easton that has a posted speed limit of 55 mph. After encountering a Nissan Altima going 35, the deputy, based solely on that fact, ran the Nissan’s license plate. The deputy learned that the car had been stopped several times in the preceding several months. One time, the driver was D.P., a man with a suspended license.

So the deputy radioed to a colleague. The second colleague approached the area and pulled alongside the Nissan. The second deputy identified the driver as a “black male, short hair covered by a ball cap with a short beard.”

The police pulled the Nissan over. As the deputy approached, he allegedly could smell the distinct odor of marijuana coming from the Nissan. The driver drove off and a chase ensued. The police did not capture the driver, but D.P. turned himself in a few days later.

D.P.’s criminal case came down to one critical question: was the traffic stop legal? If it was, then the state had considerable proof on its side. If it wasn’t, the case against D.P. would be dramatically weaker.

Going 35 in a 55-MPH Zone Isn’t a Legitimate Basis for a Traffic Stop…

The Court of Special Appeals said the stop was illegal and the accused man was entitled to the suppression of all of the evidence that flowed from the stop.

The driver’s slow speed was not a valid basis. While driving 35 mph down a 55-mph stretch of a four-lane highway might be highly unusual, it is, nevertheless, completely legal in Maryland as long as the driver isn’t unsafely impeding other traffic (which this driver was not.) In other words, the driver of the Nissan was driving in a manner 100% consistent with all the applicable traffic laws of Maryland, so his driving could not form the basis for a police traffic stop.

And Being Black With Short Hair and Short Beard Isn’t a Specific Enough Description, Either

Additionally, the description of the driver was not enough to justify a traffic stop. For the police to pull you over based on a physical description, that description must be “sufficiently unique to permit a reasonable degree of selectivity from the group of all potential suspects.” Here, all the police were going on was three pretty general things: a (1) Black male (2) with short hair covered by a ball cap and (3) a short beard. That relatively broad description did not do enough to separate D.P. “from the many possible drivers with similar features.” That made it insufficiently specific to be the foundation of a valid traffic stop.

You may know that the basis the police used to stop you was sketchy, but you probably have much less certainty about how to convert that awareness to a winning argument before a judge that will lead to the suppression of the critical evidence the prosecution wants to use against you. For that and the many other needs that require an in-depth knowledge of the law and court procedure, count on the experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. To put the power of this office to work for you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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