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What Happens If Police Find Drugs in My Car After Initiating an Illegal Traffic Stop?

It’s not exactly news, but when police pull you over on a suspected traffic violation, that may simply be a pretext to look for evidence of other criminal activity, such as possession of illegal drugs. Indeed, many “routine” traffic stops in the Houston area end in drug charges. But it’s important to remember that if the traffic stop itself is invalid, any evidence the police obtain subsequent to the illegal stop is inadmissible as evidence against you in court.

Inaccurate Claim of Missing Taillamp Leads to Dismissal of Drug Charges

This is exactly what happened in a recent Texas criminal drug case, State v. Lockhart. This case began with an early-morning traffic stop in June 2017. The arresting officer stated under oath that he “observed a white pickup truck that did not appear to have a license-plate taillamp.” Section 547.322 of the Texas Transportation Code requires such tail-lamps on most vehicles, specifically to illuminate the rear license plate such that it is “clearly legible from a distance of 50 feet from the rear.”

Here, the officer claimed he could not see the rear license plate on the defendant’s truck, thus justifying his decision to stop the defendant. The officer subsequently discovered evidence that led to charging the defendant with unlawful possession of a controlled substance. But prior to trial, the judge granted the defendant’s motion to exclude this evidence.

As it turned out, video surveillance taken from the officer’s own dashboard camera refuted the officer’s claim the defendant’s truck was missing a taillamp. Indeed, the officer himself testified in court that after he initiated the stop and got out of his own vehicle, he saw there was a taillamp on the truck. The trial court noted at this point the “purpose of the stop was effectuated” and the officer failed to offer any “specific, articulable facts” to continue detaining the defendant.

The state appealed the judge’s ruling. Before the appeals court, prosecutors attempted to salvage their case by arguing the stop was still justified because the taillamp was so dim, the officer could not reasonably read the defendant’s license plate from 50 feet away, as required by the Code. But the Court of Appeals rejected this line of reasoning. Ultimately, the trial court’s decision hinged on its “evaluation of the credibility and demeanor” of the police officer. And appellate courts generally do not second-guess trial judges on such matters. In any event, the appeals court noted the trial judge’s ruling implied it also concluded the license plate was legible from 50 feet.

Speak with a League City Drug Crimes Lawyer Today

As you can see, it is not fruitless to challenge the legality of a traffic stop that leads to serious drug charges. This is one reason it is critical to work with a qualified Houston drug crimes defense attorney. If you live in the Houston, Galveston, or League City areas and are accused of possessing illegal drugs, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys. Call (281) 280-0100.