What Are Pretextual Traffic Stops?

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There are so many traffic laws and motor vehicle equipment regulations on the books that nearly all of us could be pulled over at any time. In other words, it’s very difficult to drive without violating some sort of traffic law.

Every year throughout the United States, law enforcement officers institute 20 million traffic stops, which is about 50,000 every single day. The reason these stops are so common is that police can pull someone over for very mundane reasons, but then use that traffic stop to investigate more serious crimes. These are known as pretextual stops.

These kinds of stops may lead to arrests for drunk driving, drug possession and other offenses unrelated to the initial reason for the stop. Law enforcement advocates claim that pretextual stops are necessary to ensure public safety. But are they? And should police have this much authority?

One major problem with pretextual stops is that officers have a lot of discretion in who they stop, which has led to significant racial bias. White drivers are 20 percent less likely to be stopped than black drivers, despite the fact that white drivers are a much larger percentage of the population. And in a large-scale analysis of stops, one study found that white drivers were more likely to be in possession of contraband (like drugs or guns), yet black drivers were searched 1.5 to 2 times more often.

Because of problems like these, some state legislatures are working to restrict the offenses for which officers can make pretextual stops. In doing so, they hope to reduce racial disparities in policing and to generally limit the amount of investigative interactions between police and average citizens (some of which can turn deadly).

Until or unless Wisconsin enacts such changes, all drivers should know that while police have broad authority to make traffic stops, their power isn’t endless. If you have been charged with drunk driving, drug possession or another offense based on a traffic stop, it may be worth investigating whether the officer had a justifiable reason to pull you over. If not, you can petition the court to suppress any evidence gathered during the stop.

For more information on how you can fight your DUI or DWI charges, contact our Madison, WI office to speak to an experienced DUI attorney today.