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From the Bench: Probable cause to stop a motorist

I have often been asked, both when I was a practicing attorney and since being appointed to the bench, what facts justify an officer pulling over a motorist in Minnesota. There are many cases that have addressed this issue, and as you would expect, those cases are very fact specific.

In general, the law in Minnesota is that an officer must have "reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity based on a totality of the circumstances." This means the officer must identify a specific reason or circumstance that justifies the stop. The stop cannot be based on mere speculation, curiosity or a hunch.

In Minnesota, an officer may stop a vehicle for virtually any violation of traffic or driving laws, even minor offenses. Minor offenses include driving conduct such as speeding, failing to stop for a stop sign or semaphore, failing to signal a lane change, operating a vehicle at night without the proper lighting, turning without a proper signal or an improper lane change.

Motor vehicle equipment violations can also be a legitimate reason for police to conduct a traffic stop. A broken taillight, excessive window tinting, expired license plate tabs, a license plate with any characters of the plate covered by any material such as snow or dirt, or a cracked windshield (whether or not the crack actually obstructs the driver's vision) all provide law enforcement with a valid reason to conduct a stop.

Many people drive with air fresheners, dream catchers, handicap parking permits, or other objects hanging from the rear view mirror. Minnesota Statute § 169.71 prohibits anything from being suspended between the driver and the windshield other than a sun visor and the rear view mirror. There are two exceptions the statute allows: a safety monitoring system or a global positioning system (GPS). Minnesota Appellate Courts have concluded that objects hanging from the rear view mirror provide the police with a legitimate basis to stop a vehicle.

If an officer has knowledge that the registered owner of the vehicle does not have a valid driver's license, the officer may conduct a traffic stop, as long as the officer does not have any information that the driver is someone other than the owner. For that reason, if a female driver is pulled over, but the registered owner with the invalid license was male, that stop, without any other facts to support the stop, would be subject to challenge in court.

If an officer witnesses evasive conduct by a driver, that too may provide a valid basis to conduct a traffic stop. In determining whether the driver's actions are deemed to be evasive conduct, a judge will determine if the officer can sufficiently describe why he or she believed that particular driver was attempting to evade the officer in light of all circumstances.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has determined that the use of temporary roadblocks to stop vehicles with the hope of catching impaired drivers violates the Minnesota Constitution.

Whether a stop can be justified by information provided to the police as a result of a citizen complaint is dependent upon various factors, such as what information did the citizen report that establishes that the vehicle's driver is committing a crime, what is the basis of the citizen's knowledge and whether the citizen identifies themself.

With the holiday season quickly approaching, law enforcement will likely increase patrol officers to crack down on drunk drivers. If you plan to drink alcohol this holiday season, please make arrangements for a sober driver. Avoiding a possible DUI and injury to yourself and others by not drinking and driving is much preferable to having to challenge the validity of a traffic stop after the fact.

I wish a happy and safe holiday season to all.

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William Cashman is a District Court judge who presides over cases in Stearns County.