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Traffic Violations and Drug Charges: Does the State Need to Prove Both?

Many drug crimes investigations in the Houston area start with a seemingly routine traffic stop. Of course, police officers cannot simply stop someone without a reason. Most of the time, the officer observes a possible traffic violation. This justifies conducting a stop, and in the course of dealing with that issue, the officer then discovers possible evidence of illegal drug possession.

“Bent” License Plate Leads to Felony Marijuana Possession Conviction

One question you might have is, “What about the original traffic violation?” In other words, if it turns out there was no such violation–or it cannot be proven in court–does that automatically invalidate the drug bust? The short answer is no, it does not.

Let’s look at a recent Texas appeals court decision, Wright v. State, for an explanation as to why this is the case. The defendant here was driving on I-45 when he passed a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. The trooper said he “observed that the license plate on the appellant’s vehicle was bent” and difficult to read. Under Texas traffic laws, it is illegal for someone to drive a vehicle with an obscured license plate.

Believing the defendant was not complying with this rule, the trooper initiated a traffic stop. The trooper approached the defendant’s vehicle and looked in the window. The trooper said he then observed marijuana in the car. The officer then conducted a search of the defendant and his vehicle, which yielded additional bags of marijuana and some hash oil.

Prosecutors subsequently charged the defendant with third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance. The defendant entered a guilty plea–reserving his right to appeal with respect to the legality of the search–and received five years probation. On appeal, the defendant maintained the “stop and detention of his vehicle was without reasonable suspicion or probable cause and, therefore, unlawful.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed. It held that the prosecution “was not required to prove” the underlying traffic violation occurred in order to “justify the trooper’s decision to stop the car to investigate whether a violation had in fact occurred.” The officer only needed “reasonable suspicion” to initiate the stop. Put another way, the legal test is whether or not “a reasonable officer would have developed suspicion that the license plate” violated the Texas rule on obscured license plates.

And although the trial judge, after reviewing video footage of the stop, could not conclusively determine whether or not the defendant’s license plate was in fact obscured, it nevertheless found the trooper’s testimony credible on this point. The Court of Appeals, in turn, said the trial court acted within its discretion in weighing the available evidence. Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction stood.

Contact a Houston Drug Crimes Defense Attorney Today

If you are arrested on drug charges following a traffic stop, the most important thing to remember is remain silent and contact a lawyer as soon as possible. A qualified Houston drug crimes defense attorney can advise you further. If you need immediate assistance, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.