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IMPEDING TRAFFIC INSUFFICIENT BASIS FOR VEHICLE STOP IN DRUG CASE

This week a majority of a panel of the Houston Court of Appeals (14th District of Texas) held that an officer did not have a legal basis to stop a driver in Waller County for the alleged traffic offense of impeding traffic. Consequently, the marijuana that was seized after the stop cannot be used in court as evidence against the passenger, who admitted knowing about it, and the charges that were filed against the passenger will have to be dismissed.

In order to conduct a traffic stop, officers have to have a reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a traffic offense or some other crime has been committed. Officers have to be able to articulate reasons for thinking that they have reasonable suspicion of traffic offense; they cannot just say that they had a hunch that the driver was violating the law. The standard that is often quoted in the case law is: “Reasonable suspicion can only be established when the officer can express some minimal level of objective justification for the detention, i.e., when the officer could conclude that an offense is being committing by pointing to specific and articulable facts and to rational inferences from those facts.”

In the Houston case, the officer said that he pulled the vehicle over for the traffic offense of “impeding traffic” because (1) there had been some congestion in one of the lanes on the highway where the vehicle was driving, (2) there was moderate traffic at the time of the stop, and (3) at the time of the stop, the vehicle was going 52 miles per hour in an area where it was allowed to go up to 65 miles per hour. The officer did not say whether the vehicle was traveling in the lane where the congestion had been.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the stop was invalid because there was just no evidence that the normal and reasonable movement of traffic was impeded by the defendant’s vehicle. There was no indication that the defendant’s vehicle caused the congestion; there was no evidence that the congestion was unusual for the time of day, or considering the weather; and there was no evidence about any vehicles being impeded.