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Do Houston Police Illegally Prolong Traffic Stops to Seek Evidence of Drug Crimes?

Many Houston-area residents find themselves facing serious drug charges because they do not understand their legal rights when stopped by police. Drug busts often begin with routine traffic stops. And while a police officer cannot use a traffic offense as an excuse to go on a prolonged fishing expedition for possible drug crimes, a driver may serve to incriminate themselves through their own statements and actions.

“Outnumbered” Cop Justified in Conducting Search Leading to Cocaine Arrest

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently addressed such a scenario. The defendant in this case was charged with possessing between 4 and 199 grams of cocaine, which carries a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years. Before the trial court, the defendant argued the police search that led to the discovery of the cocaine violated his constitutional rights.

Here is what happened. A police officer pulled over a vehicle late one evening after observing a pair of minor traffic violations. The officer was alone. There were four people in the car, including the defendant, who was sitting next to the driver.

While waiting for the driver to produce his license and registration, the officer asked the defendant if he had an identification. The defendant replied he did not. The officer later testified in court that the defendant was “moving his feet a lot, trying to reach his hands into his pockets, and moving his hands between the seats.” This led the officer to suspect the defendant might have a weapon.

The officer then asked the defendant to step out of the car. The officer then conducted a pat-down to search the defendant for weapons. The defendant admitted he had a pocket knife. The officer continued the pat-down and felt what he believed was “some sort of drugs” in the defendant’s pockets.

The defendant then volunteered his name and birthday, which turned out to be false. A few minutes later, the officer asked the defendant several additional questions. During this exchange, the defendant admitted to smoking marijuana and smoking synthetic marijuana–which is also illegal in Texas–that day. Indeed, the defendant admitted having synthetic marijuana on him, at which point the officer conducted a search of the defendant’s pockets.

Although an intermediate court held the officer’s actions violated the defendant’s constitutional rights, the Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed. The critical question was whether the officer’s initial weapons pat-down of the defendant was justified. The defendant argued the pat-down was merely a pretext to prolong the traffic stop, a practice both the Court of Criminal Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court have said violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable” searches.

Under the facts of this case, the Court of Criminal Appeals said the officer “had reasonable suspicion to conduct a pat-down.” The Court cited the fact the officer was alone and “outnumbered” when he initiated the traffic stop. In this situation an officer “would be justified in fearing for his safety” and thus searching the defendant for weapons. Furthermore, the officer’s actions did not “unlawfully prolong” the stop, which only lasted about nine minutes before the defendant attempted to flee the scene.

Do Not Run, Do Not Speak

Obviously, running away from the police is never a good idea. Neither is volunteering information that can be used against you in court. If a police officer asks you any questions outside the scope of a traffic stop, politely but firmly refuse to answer. And if you are ultimately detained, you should contact a qualified Texas drug crimes attorney who will aggressively defend your rights. Call the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, League City, or Galveston today at (281) 280-0100 to speak with an attorney today.