Oregon – The Oregon Supreme Court has decided that police can no longer inquire about criminal behavior outside of whatever a police officer has pulled someone over for within the state.
What does that mean?
Essentially, cops can no longer use a broken taillight or a failure to signal as a justification for scouting a driver’s car for illegal guns or drugs.
The irony of this ruling is that it spawned from a police officer who asked during a traffic stop if he may search a vehicle, to which the driver consented, and the officer found some meth. Apparently, police are no longer allowed to stumble upon crimes when stopping for traffic infractions.
The ruling forces officers to stick to questions “reasonably related” to the reason the driver was pulled over, basically hindering law enforcement’s ability to turn a routine traffic stop into the discovery of a more egregious offense.
Law enforcement agencies are engaged in several stages of reviewing the ruling and drafting new procedures for officers.
While the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and the Salem Police Department said they were both in anticipation of direction from their district and city attorneys, correspondingly, police departments in Beaverton and Gresham, as well as the Oregon State Police, were working on a training announcement related to the new guidelines. The Portland Police Bureau said it is reviewing its training protocols and updating officers as well.
While numerous agencies have directed officers to keep the conversation related to the purpose of the initial stop, they stated that if there’s legitimate evidence of other offenses while the stop is being worked, officers may take measures to confirm or dispel their suspicion.
Sergeant Danny DiPietro, a spokesman for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, commented on the situation.
“If a deputy pulls someone over for a traffic violation, walks up, smells the odor of alcohol and sees blood shot eyes, poor coordination in their hands, that would establish reasonable suspicion for a DUI. Then they can inquire about that crime.”
While the aforementioned inquiries are protected, police can no longer simply question those stopped about possible infractions that are not directly related to the stop without credible suspicion.
“Each officer or deputy in this case are going to have to change the way they conduct their traffic stops on a day to day basis. It’s very significant,” DiPietro commented.
The traction leading to this court decision can be traced right back to the case of Mario Arreola-Botello, who was pulled over by a Beaverton Police officer in 2015 for failing to signal a turn. Arreola-Botello had allowed officers to search his vehicle, which led to them discovering some methamphetamine on the floor of his vehicle.
Joshua Crowther, Arreola-Botello’s attorney, claimed that the search was unconstitutional because it was spawned by questions that went outside the scope of what police should be allowed to ask during a routine traffic stop.
However, from a legal perspective, that’s factually incorrect. An officer may ask to search a vehicle, but if there’s no reasonable suspicion or warrant, then drivers have the right to say “no” and that ends that discussion.
Initially, a trial court and the Oregon Court of Appeals had brushed off the claim of Arreola-Botello’s attorney and stated that officers are allowed to venture outside the scope of an initial traffic stop inquiry-wise; specifically citing what’s referred to as an “unavoidable lull” in the interaction, which usually occurs while the driver is busy searching for their license and registration.
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Yet, the Oregon Supreme Court sided with Arreola-Botello’s attorney argument that he posed and went further to state the previous court’s justification wasn’t up to snuff.
Their decision addressed the “unavoidable lull” aspect in their ruling.
“Put simply, an ‘unavoidable lull’ does not create an opportunity for an officer to ask unrelated questions, unless the officer can justify the inquiry on other grounds.”
Those who are pulled over for minor traffic related stop can go into interactions officers on the road knowing they’re unlikely to be asked about guns or drugs. However, it’s not clearly defined if the ruling will completely eliminate general probing questions from traffic stops such as, “Where are you coming from?”
Attorney Joshua Crowther thinks that the ruling will stop these kinds of questions, as well as any kind of small talk that bears no significance to the stop itself.
“The reason [officers] justified the stop delineates the bounds for what the conversation can be,” he said.
Other departments within the state finds the idea that the ruling also covers general small talk is nonsense, and if it is, it can even create more issues between the public’s perception of police as being simple authoritarians and not human.
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Eric Bunday, a spokesperson for the Hillsboro police department, gave his thoughts on the notion that small talk will no longer be allowed during traffic stops.
“Our officers will continue to be friendly, put it that way. We’re not going to be robots. We’re going to ask how their day is going and how’s the weather.”
A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice said the Oregon Supreme Court has the final authority on the case, and therefore the department is unable to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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