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Pretextual stops in Pennsylvania: What you need to know

| Sep 4, 2020 | Criminal Defense

After a traffic stop, when can the state police decide to hold you for an extended period of time and search your car? In Pennsylvania, the answer seems to be, “Whenever they feel like it,” even if doing so is actually illegal.

All it takes to pull over a car is “mere suspicion” that something illegal has happened, like whether the trooper thinks that maybe someone doesn’t have their seat belt on or maybe you’re riding in the left lane longer than it takes to actually pass another vehicle. While a routine traffic stop should result in — at most — a ticket, troopers in PA are using these stops for minor moving violations as a pretext to ask leading questions, snoop around a vehicle for “criminal indicators” that there might be drugs or weapons in the car and so on.

What sort of evidence does a trooper need to call a K-9 unit or search the car? Maybe just the odor of marijuana on your clothes or — in one man’s case — a tattoo on your neck that somehow looks suspicious. Even more disturbing: Half of the cases reviewed by reporters digging into allegations of pretextual searches in three PA counties involved Black people, even though Black people make up only about 10% of the population in those counties.

Reviews of affidavits filed by the state police in cases involving criminal charges show that troopers overwhelmingly justify digging into someone’s vehicle with vague language and a lack of real specifics. In most cases, prosecutors move forward with the charges knowing that defendants are likely to take a plea deal rather than fight the illegal search.

What do you need to take away from this information? Essentially, any traffic stop can be used to justify a potentially illegal search of your vehicle. If you do end up facing charges, you may have a valid defense — but you need to assert your rights to a defense as aggressively as possible.