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Traffic Stops are Seizures Under the Fourth Amendment

A red stop sign in the road, representing how one can benefit from calling a Portland criminal defense lawyer.

In recent blog posts, we’ve delved into the important legal question of whether you’ve been “seized” by police, thus triggering your Fourth Amendment rights. Knowing the exact point when you were seized by police can make a huge difference because, if the seizure was unreasonable, any evidence obtained after the seizure happened will be excluded from trial.

While there’s a broad spectrum of possible police detentions that often makes it unclear whether you’ve been “seized,” some police actions, like the use of deadly force, a roadblock or sobriety checkpoint, or bringing a suspect into the police station for questioning, have been settled as “seizures.”

Another definitive seizure under the Fourth Amendment is a traffic stop.

Traffic Stops Are Seizures Under the Fourth Amendment

When you are driving along the roads of Maine, minding your own business, and a police officer appears behind you and makes it known that he or she wants you to pull to the side of the road, you know and understand that, if you keep driving, there will be legal consequences. The show of authority that the police use to make you pull over – the sirens, the flashing lights, and their very presence behind you – make it clear that you are not free to leave, making it a seizure in the eyes of the Fourth Amendment.

Delaware v. Prouse

The United States Supreme Court case that decided traffic stops were Fourth Amendment seizures was Delaware v. Prouse. In that case, a Delaware cop literally pulled over a car “just because”: During trial, the officer admitted that he hadn’t seen a traffic violation or a problem with the vehicle, and hadn’t seen any suspicious activity of any sort, and that he’d only made the traffic stop in order to check the driver’s license and registration.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which decided that “stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute a ‘seizure’” under the Fourth Amendment, “even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief.”

Everyone in the Car is Seized

While Prouse involved a vehicle occupied by the driver and three others, the Supreme Court didn’t dig much into the issue of who, exactly, was seized by the police. It wasn’t until a later case, Brendlin v. California, that the Supreme Court explicitly stated that, whenever the police pulled a car over, all of its occupants were considered seized under the Fourth Amendment.

William T. Bly: A Criminal Defense Attorney in Maine

The point at which you are “seized” by police makes a huge difference because, if that seizure is not reasonable, it is an unlawful one under the Fourth Amendment, and any evidence obtained because of it will be thrown out.

As a criminal defense and OUI-defense attorney, William T. Bly knows and understands how to use the protections of the Fourth Amendment to prove your innocence. Contact him online or call his law office at (207) 571-8146.


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So thankful I chose this team to represent me. They’re the best, hands down. Nathan Hitchcock proved my innocence not once but TWICE, including a trial by jury. I have a family in law enforcement who told me “Bill Bly and his team are the best. If I would recommend anyone, it would be them.”

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