The short answer is yes; however, under the Ohio and United States Constitutions, a police officer’s belief that a traffic violation occurred must be “objectively reasonable.”
When a judge examines whether a traffic stop is legal under the Ohio and United States Constitutions, the law requires that the judge determine if the stop was “reasonable” under the circumstances. Depending on what the circumstances are in your case, the “reasonableness” for the stop may be different for you than for another driver or even a different outcome for you on a different day with a different set of facts.
Reasons a police officer can pull you over
The most common reason for a traffic stop by a police officer is because the officer has probable cause to believe that you committed a traffic violation. Typically, this means that the officer witnessed you violate the law, even a minor offense, and now has the ability to pull you over to give you a citation for a traffic violation. “Probable cause” can be established in other ways, but for traffic stops the most common occurrence is that the officer witnessed you commit the offense.
However, probable cause is not always required for a traffic stop to be legal. If an officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that you committed a crime, even a minor traffic offense, then the officer is allowed to pull you over to investigate that suspicion. In other words, the officer may not have seen you commit a crime, but the officer is aware of facts that lead that officer to reasonably believe you committed a crime or about to commit a crime. While an officer is limited in the length of time that you can be detained for a stop based on reasonable suspicion, you could still be asked to step out of your vehicle and asked to provide identification or other investigative questions.
Does a police officer’s belief that I violated the law have to be correct?
No. Arrests or citations are not based on “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that you are guilty. Arrests or citations are based on the much lesser standard of probable cause. Whether you are guilty of a crime is a matter to be determined by a judge or jury in court.
Can I be arrested or cited for a violation even if I didn’t break the law?
Yes. Whether “probable cause,” or even the lesser standard of “reasonable suspicion,” exists is based on whether an objectively reasonable police officer would believe that your conduct violated the law. In other words, the law does not require that you actually committed an offense for an officer to legally detain you, cite you for a violation, or arrest you. Instead, the law only requires that an officer’s belief that you broke the law be reasonable.
How can an officer’s belief that I violated the law be “reasonable” if I didn’t do anything wrong?
A very valid question; the, perhaps unsatisfying, answer is “because the Supreme Court decided it was ok.” In Heien v. North Carolina, the United States Supreme Court determined that an officer can legally pull you over even if the officer was mistaken about what the law says, so long as that mistake was reasonable. In Heien, an officer believed that two functional brake lights were required under North Carolina law; however, the law in North Carolina actually only required one functional brake light. In other words, Heien was pulled over even though he didn’t commit a traffic offense. During that traffic stop the officer discovered narcotics in Heien’s vehicle, and he was charged with felony drug possession. The Supreme Court decided that because North Carolina’s traffic laws were confusing that the officer’s belief that Heien violated the law was reasonable; therefore, the traffic stop and conviction for the narcotics found after the traffic stop were legal.
What can I do if I am arrested or cited for a traffic offense even when I didn’t break the law?
That’s why it’s important that you understand your constitutional rights. Do not consent to a search of your vehicle; that is how Heien got himself in serious trouble. By knowing and properly asserting your rights, hopefully, you can avoid incriminating statements or more serious charges.
If you were pulled over even though you didn’t violate the law, and you have already been charged with a crime or traffic violation, it is important that you speak with an experienced criminal trial attorney that is prepared to fight for you in court. Just because you were charged does not mean that you will be convicted or even that your stop was legal. Recently, in State v. Brown, the First District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that an officer’s belief that a traffic violation occurred because of an obstructed license plate cover was not reasonable, and the trial court correctly ruled against the State of Ohio.
Make sure you speak with an experienced criminal trial attorney about your case. Make sure that your attorney has researched current cases and understands how to potentially challenge your traffic stop like the experienced attorneys at Rittgers & Rittgers. At Rittgers & Rittgers our lawyers are well-versed in motions to suppress and routinely conduct full motion to suppress hearings in a variety of cases including those involving drugs, OVI, and other misdemeanors and felonies.