Reasonable Suspicion For a Traffic Stop in California

October 24, 2016

Reasonable Suspicion for a Traffic Stop in California

Most people dread the sound of the police siren behind them.  And, in some cases, you are aware of why the police stopped you.  It could have been an expired registration tap or it could be that you drove faster than the speed limit.  But in many situations, you can be confused when the police pull you over because you have done nothing wrong.

California law allows a police officer to pull over another vehicle if the police officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime occurred.   A crime does not have to be serious; believe it or not, a traffic infraction is a crime, albeit, not the type that can result in jail time or a “criminal record”.  A traffic stop is justified at its inception if based on at least reasonable suspicion that the driver has violated the Vehicle Code or some other law. (People v. Bell (1996) 43 Cal.App. 4th 754).

We don’t think of traffic violations as crimes – but they are, albeit very minor crimes called infractions.  An infraction is the type of crime for which jail can not be imposed.  Any traffic violations are thus “crimes” and enough to pull you over.  California Vehicle Code 2804 specifically allows a California Highway Patrol Officer to require a driver to stop and inspect and submit for inspection upon a belief that any traffic violation took place or to inspect the vehicle equipment.  Suspicion of DUI is thus NOT a good reason to stop your car.  A police officer must articulate an actual good reason for a traffic stop that will be a violation of the vehicle code.

Here are just some of the examples of how police can stop your vehicle

Reasonable Suspicion 1: Talking on a mobile phone.

As of September 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a new state bill. The new law prohibits the use of any mobile device for texting or talking for any reason while operating a vehicle. The law is an attempt to prevent distracted driving. California Highway Patrol published statistics showing that more than 13 thousand drivers were cited for distracted driving in 2016. The law came into effect in January 2017 and changed the existing law which allowed under some conditions to hold a phone. The new law only allows usage of a phone when it is installed in a vehicle on a phone mount and when a single swipe or tap of a finger will activate or deactivate a feature. Holding a phone with a hand is punishable by a fine of $20 for the first-time offense, and $50 for a second and subsequent violation.  Next year, this law changes to add points to the driving record upon conviction.

Reasonable Suspicion 2: 911 or Dispatch Tip.

Under some circumstances, law enforcement can stop a vehicle that matches a description of a vehicle used in a crime or matches a description of a stolen vehicle. If this is a reason for the police stop, please contact an attorney for a free consultation and an explanation of how to fight your case.

  • Both Federal and California cases permit the suppression of the evidence when the police stop a driver based on the 911 call alone.  In California, the law is based on the Supreme Court case of People v Wells (38 Cal 4th 1078), and a 2014 Federal court case of Navarette v. California a 2014 case (527. U.S. 393).  Recently, Los Angeles DUI Attorney and Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney was able to dismiss an Orange County DUI based on a violation of Navarrette.
  • In Navarette, a 911 call was used to pull over a pickup truck because the caller said that the pickup truck “ran her off the road”.   The stop was challenged, reached the US Supreme Court who unfortunatelly held that an anonymous tip can be used to pull over a vehicle suspected of drunk driving.  But the SCOTUS also said that an anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates the informant’s basis of knowledge or veracity. The court noted that “Unconfirmed reports of driving without a seatbelt or slightly over the speed limit, for example, are so tenuously connected to drunk driving that a stop on those grounds alone would be constitutionally suspect.” but permitted the stop noting that it was a close call.
  • In Los Angeles DUI attorney’s recent Orange County win, the caller failed to state what dangerous conduct she observed.  So if the caller simply told the police that she saw a drunk driver, this would be insufficient to justify a stop; but, if she said that the drunk driver ran her off the road, it would be sufficient under Navarrette.  This resulted in the dismissal of a DUI case in Orange County.

Reasonable Suspicion 3: Sobriety Check Point.

The police may set up sobriety checkpoints to stop and inspect drivers as long as they comply with the legal requirement of a stop. The requirements are very technical, so please contact an attorney if you were arrested at a sobriety checkpoint.  Ingressol v. Palmer (43 Cal.3d 1321) is the main California case that in 1987 held the requirement for a valid police checkpoint.  For example, police must follow a neutral formula such as stopping every third driver, police must announce the checkpoint before they are setting it up; the reason for a checkpoint must is not to “ferret out crime” but to deter drunk driving, and so forth.

Reasonable Suspicion 4: Suspended Driver’s License. 

Police can now stop a vehicle when the driver’s license of the owner’s vehicle is revoked or suspended.  This is a 2020 decision from the USSC in Kansas v. Glover (140 S. Ct 1183).  There, a police officer checked the license plate of a truck driving in front of him and learned that it is registered to Mr. Glover, whose license was revoked.  The Supreme Court decided that this is a good enough reason to stop the truck to check if Glover, in fact, drives that vehicle.  How to limit it:  (1) Glover’s license was revoked and not suspended and the difference in Kansan is very substantial.  In California, the difference is not as substantial – however, we have to argue that this case is not applicable to suspended licenses because Glover’s license was revoked.

Reasonable Suspicion 5: Traffic Violations.

Any violation of traffic laws can cause an officer to stop your vehicle. For example weaving, equipment violation, tinted windows, running a red light, or not wearing seat belts can be a basis for pulling over your vehicle.  If you are pulled over for a traffic violation, contact Los Angeles DUI Attorney or Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney to go over the facts of your case.  You can win your case through a search and seizure motion.

Reasonable Suspicion 6: License Plate Violations. 

California Vehicle Code 5200 requires license plates on a car registered in California.  The license plate must have a tag with the month and year the registration expires.  Passenger vehicles must have two license plates – one attached in the front and the other one in the rear.  The license plate must be unobstructed by anything including license plate frames.  One famous case involves a stop based in part on the frame having palm trees that extended too far into the license plate and partially blocked it.  All these, license plate violations can cause an officer to stop your vehicle.


(a) When two license plates are issued by the department for use upon a vehicle, they shall be attached to the vehicle for which they were issued, one in the front and the other in the rear.

(b) When only one license plate is issued for use upon a vehicle, it shall be attached to the rear thereof, unless the license plate is issued for use upon a truck tractor, in which case the license plate shall be displayed in accordance with Section 4850.5.

Note that if the DMV issued only one license plate to you, then the stop must be illegal and you can get your Los Angeles DUI case dismissed.

If you just bought your car, your car must have a temporary registration certificate issued by DMV. This temporary registration is often called a “paper plate“. The paper plates are often attached as a window sticker to the rear window of the vehicle. It is your responsibility to make sure the paper plate is valid to permit you to drive legally until the DMV issues a regular license plate to you.

Can an expired sticker on a registration present a reasonable suspicion and basis for a stop?  Not always: case in POINT: People v. Nabongthere, in 2004 in San Mateo an officer pulled over a car with an expired tag and a temporary registration in a window.  Because Nabong applied for registration but did not receive it yet the stop was suppressed.

Reasonable Suspicion 7: Speeding and Unusual Braking Pattern.

For police officers, rapid acceleration, sharp turns, or abrupt stops will indicate the driver’s impairment. And yet, speeding by itself is a good reason for the police officer to stop you.  But even driving too slow can cause the police officer to have reasonable suspicion and a reason to pull you over.

Reasonable Suspicion 8: Lane changing.

Unsafe or quick maneuvering from one lane to another with elements of weaving can be a basis to stop your vehicle. Police officers might comment that you were driving dangerously and almost colliding with another vehicle. The police officers also are trained in spotting tell tales of drunk driving, such as drifting slowly to one side or tailgating. Straddling lanes is a typical reason why many drivers get pulled over by police. Traffic police officers may suspect drunk driving because lane straddling indicates a problem with coordination, a sign of drunk driving. To avoid being pulled over you must not violate traffic laws and change lanes carefully. 

Reasonable Suspicion 9: Failure to Stop at a Stop Sign or Limit Line.

Reckless driving with “rolling stops” is a common basis for police stops. If you are approaching a stop sign, you must stop at the limit line even if there are no cars nearby. These traffic laws are enforced are lot more in areas where someone may be injured, such as near schools or areas with many pedestrians. Pedestrians are often given the right of way so, if you are observing pedestrians attempting to cross the road, please stop to allow them to pass. The approaching emergency vehicle with flashing lights or sirens, like an ambulance or fire brigade, also requires you to pull off the road.

Reasonable Suspicion 10: Passing and Turnings.

Turning right on a red light requires a stop in California. Police will often stop drivers for failing to stop at the red light before making a right turn.

Reasonable Suspicion 11: Equipment violations.

It’s against the law to drive when there are technical or mechanical problems with your vehicle. These may include nonfunctional headlights or taillights, malfunctioning wipers, broken windshield or side-view mirrors, or driver and passenger side windows tint. Traffic police officers will often stop drivers for these violations and this is considered a sufficient probable cause.

When police stop your vehicle suspecting DUI, the police will often try to observe and note evidence of impairment throughout the encounter. So don’t behave aggressively, and don’t be impulsive, argumentative, or rude. Police will often ask if you know the reason why you’ve been pulled over. Admitting to a traffic violation is common because people will often blurt out admitting to a violation of the law and providing additional grounds for investigation. If you believe you didn’t do anything wrong, remain calm, take a deep breath, and do not submit to questioning.

Multiple police agencies enforce the law in California. For example, California Highway Patrol enforces laws on the State Highways, the county Sheriff enforces the law in the county and uncharted cities and local police agencies enforce the law in chartered cities.  In Los Angeles, LAPD enforces the law in the greater city of Los Angeles, the CHP enforces the law on state highways, and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department patrols in unincorporated areas. All 3 police agencies have powers to arrest a person for a DUI and prosecute in state courts.

Los Angeles DUI Attorney

 Call us at  (818) 921 7744  or (323) 464-6424 to receive your Free professional DUI case evaluation.


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