Articles Posted in Minor traffic offenses

Today, the Supreme Court released its decision and opinion in Rodriguez v. United States. This was not just a defense win. It was a win for anyone who travels in a car and may be stopped by the police for a traffic violation. The six justices in the majority were Ginsburg (who wrote the opinion), Roberts, Scalia, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer.

Rodriguez had been stopped for driving on the shoulder. After the officer had checked his license and registration, found no warrants, and wrote a warning and handed it to Rodriguez, he required Rodriguez to stay at the location for a dog sniff of his car. The dog signaled that the car had drugs and police recovered the drugs.

The problem was that the officer had no further basis to suspect Rodriguez had done anything wrong at the time he continued to detain Rodriguez for a dog sniff. The purpose of the traffic stop had been completed. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the extended detention was de minimus and not sufficient to require suppression of the evidence found.

The Supreme Court reversed. It said:

We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures. A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, “become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of issuing a ticket for the violation.

What this means is that police can investigate other crimes during the time that it would take to write a ticket, but cannot use a search for which the police do not have articulable reasonable suspicion to extend that time. They cannot dilly dally or delay writing the ticket in order to conduct an illegal search.
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Just last term the United StatesSupreme Court held in McNeely v. Missouri, that a warrant is presumptively required before obtaining a blood sample from a drunk driving supsect. However this week, in Navarette v. California, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that a police officer does not have to confirm an anonymous tip of reckless driving before stopping a vehicle.

A woman who actually identified herself on a 911 call, but was not identified in court, said she had been run off the road by a truck, and provided a description and tag number. An officer located the truck and followed it without observing any other traffic violations. A five member majority found that even though no other violations were observed by the police officer, the officer had articulable reasonable suspicion of drunk driving under the totality of the circumstances. The Court suggested that if the information provided by the caller had been less specific or the offense alleged less serious, that the information would have been insufficient to justify the stop.
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The U.S. Supreme Court held oral argument yesterday in the case of Navarette v. California. This case presents the important issue of when police can stop a car based on an anonymous tip without corroborating the details provided by the caller. An anonymous caller informed police that Navarette’s vehicle was driving recklessly and almost ran them off the road. The caller provided a description of the vehicle. Police spotted the vehicle 19 miles down the road and followed for another 5 miles without seeing any bad driving. Ultimately, the vehicle was stopped and police found marijuana. Under the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule, if the stop was illegal, the marijuana must be suppressed. That means the trial court couldn’t consider it and Navarette would get off.

During the argument the justices peppered the lawyers with hypotheticals designed to flesh about where and what lines the Court should draw. What if it was a report of a bomb? An atom bomb? A gun? The Court had held in a gun case, Florida v. J.L., an anonymous report of a juvenile in a plaid shirt carrying a gun was insufficient.

The general rule is that police may stop a person if they have an articulable reasonable suspicion to believe the person was, is, or is about to commit a crime. But a very important factor may have been overlooked by the justices and the lawyer arguing the case.

MR. KLEVEN: Right. If they can’t see any erratic driving still going on, then where is it going to go? They’re not going to prosecute for the recklessdriving that allegedly took place 19 miles away and they have followed that car for an additional -­
JUSTICE SCALIA: They could if the guy admitted it, you know.
MR. KLEVEN: Other than that, Your Honor -­
JUSTICE SCALIA: They could play Mutt and Jeff with him and he — oh, yeah, I did, yes.

The fallacy here is that if the caller is anonymous, even if the defendant admits the conduct, he cannot be prosecuted for it. The corpus delicti rule in criminal law requires that there must be corroboration of the corpus delicti to prosecute a defendant. “Corpus delicti” is a Latin phrase that very loosely translated means the body of the crime. A person cannot be convicted of a crime based solely on a statement admitting guilt. There must be some independent evidence that in fact a crime was committed. In the case of an anonymous report of a past crime such as a minor traffic violation, without any witness to come forward and testify under oath that he observed the defendant commit a crime, the defendant can’t be prosecuted for it.

So why allow the stop?
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Electronic signs all over Maryland are telling drivers about the new laws that kicked in today. What exactly is going on? Two offenses that were previously denominated as secondary actions have been changed to primary actions.

As the 90 day legislative report states:

Senate Bill 339/House Bill 753 (both passed) authorize primary enforcement of the prohibitions against the use of (1) a wireless communication device by a minor operating a motor vehicle; (2) a handheld telephone by an adult driver while operating a motor vehicle with a provisional license or learner’s permit; (3) a handheld telephone by an operator of a school vehicle that is carrying passengers and in motion; and (4) the fully licensed driver’s hands to use a handheld telephone, while the vehicle is in motion, except as specified. The bills repeal the provisions of law that limited enforcement to a secondary action when a driver is detained for another violation.

What this means is that previously a police officer could not stop a vehicle if he or she observed the listed violations. A person could only be charged under one of these provisions if the person was first stopped for a different violation. This law now allows officers to stop a vehicle based on observation of one of these violations alone.
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Last year, the Maryland legislature changed the law that required the court to send trial notices to all persons receiving traffic tickets. Now a person receiving a payable (minor) traffic violation and no jailable (non-payable – must appear) companion tickets must either pay the ticket or request a trial within 30 days. If this is not done the driver’s license is suspended until they pay it.

The ticket says:

IF ANY OF YOUR VIOLATIONS ARE MARKED “MUST APPEAR”: You will automatically be mailed a notice of your trial date by
the Court. Failure to appear will result in a warrant for your arrest.

Then further down on the form it says:

IF ANY OF YOUR VIOLATIONS ARE MARKED “PAYABLE FINE”: You must comply with one of the following within 30 days
after receipt of the citation. Provide any change of address if applicable.
OPTION #1 – PAYMENT: Pay the full amount of the fine for each violation within 30 days at any District Court of Maryland, by
mail, or by credit card (fees apply) using the IVR system or the Court Website. If paying by mail, make check or money order
payable to District Court of MD and include citation number(s) on front of check or money order. On the option form below, check
“Pay Fine Amount” for each violation being paid and mail the form with your payment to the address shown for the District Court of
MD.
An additional $10 service fee will be imposed for each dishonored check.
OPTION #2 – REQUEST A WAIVER HEARING REGARDING SENTENCING AND DISPOSITION INSTEAD OF A TRIAL: On the
option form below, check “Request Waiver Hearing” for each violation where hearing is requested, sign and date at bottom and mail the
form within 30 days to the address shown below. DO NOT SEND PAYMENT at this time.
OPTION #3 – REQUEST TRIAL: On the option form below, check “Request Trial” for each violation where Trial is requested, sign, date
at bottom and mail the form within 30 days to the address shown below. DO NOT SEND PAYMENT at this time.

The problem occurs when the person (or their parent!) pays the citation without knowing the consequences. First of all, if any of the tickets is a must appear, then it should absolutely not be paid because a trial date will be scheduled for all the tickets together. The notice on the citation is not clear about this! Even if none of the tickets is a must appear, no ticket should be paid before the person knows everything that will happen at the MVA. And in most cases, people receiving tickets do better by going to court anyway.
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