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The following article was authored by Attorney Cynthia Everson, a North Carolina attorney with offices in Concord, NC.  More information about Cynthia and her firm can be found on her website:

In North Carolina, people pulled over by law enforcement officers for minor traffic violations often complain that the stop was for some other reason, or, in other words, the so-called traffic violation was a “pretext” for the stop so that the officer could check for other criminal activity on less than probable cause. Unfortunately, this is often true.

The police do not need probable cause to conduct a traffic stop. Instead, under the Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio, they may briefly stop a vehicle based on the lower standard of reasonable suspicion based on specific, articulable facts of ongoing criminal activity. So, if the police observe a traffic violation, they may briefly seize the vehicle and its occupants to investigate that traffic violation. The officer’s subjective intentions are irrelevant to this analysis, if a reasonable officer would otherwise make the stop. However, just because an officer can stop a vehicle does not mean that the stop is lawful under Terry if a reasonable officer would not stop the vehicle solely for the observed traffic violation.

This reasonableness standard is completely objective and is often an issue where people are stopped for minor infractions, like speeding, failing to wear a seatbelt, or nonworking lights, and then a search of the person or vehicle reveals more incriminating evidence, usually drugs.

If a reasonable officer would not make the traffic stop absent other motives, such as searching for drugs, then the stop is invalid even if a traffic violation occurred. On the other hand, even with the motive of an officer to search for drugs, the traffic stop may be valid if a reasonable officer would have made it absent such a motive.

The Bottom Line

In short, whether a pretextual traffic stop is lawful requires a very fact-specific analysis, and such a traffic stop may be lawful in one situation but not in another. Drug convictions have serious consequences that can change a person’s life in many ways, including employment, housing, education, and overall reputation. Always consult an experienced criminal defense attorney if you have been stopped for a traffic violation that led to criminal, non-traffic charges.