Criminal Justice

Random investigative questions by cops during traffic stops are unconstitutional, state supreme court rules

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Police officers who pull over drivers in Oregon can’t ask investigative questions that are unrelated to the purpose of the stop unless they have independent justification for doing so, the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled.

The court based its Nov. 15 decision on the Oregon constitutional provision that bars unreasonable search and seizure.

Oregon Public Broadcasting has coverage.

The court ruled on behalf of Mario Arreola-Botello, who had argued that his traffic stop became an unreasonable seizure when a Beaverton police officer asked unrelated questions.

Arreola-Botello was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. While Arreola-Botello was searching for registration and proof of insurance, the officer asked Arreola-Botello whether he had any drugs and guns in the vehicle and asked permission to search. Arreola-Botello consented, and the officer found methamphetamine on the floor between the driver’s seat and the door.

The officer had testified that his questioning about guns and drugs had been “a routine inquiry, ‘all the same spiel every time.’” He then asks for permission to search the car.

The state had argued that the questions were permissible during an “unavoidable lull” that doesn’t extend the time of the stop. Such a lull occurs, for example, when a person is searching for requested documents. The Oregon Supreme Court disagreed and suppressed the methamphetamine evidence.

“An officer is limited to investigatory inquiries that are reasonably related to the purpose of the traffic stop or that have an independent constitutional justification,” the state supreme court said. “Put simply, an ‘unavoidable lull’ does not create an opportunity for an officer to ask unrelated questions, unless the officer can justify the inquiry on other grounds.”

Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the decision closes a loophole that had allowed police to conduct warrantless searches that disproportionately target minorities.

An amicus brief filed by the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Oregon Justice Resource Center cited a study of 55 million traffic stops. It found that drivers overall were searched during a traffic stop 3.4% of the time. Black drivers, however, were searched 7.6% of the time, and Latino drivers were searched 8.7% of the time

Law enforcement agencies in Oregon are reviewing the ruling and creating instructions for officers, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

One police department told Oregon Public Broadcasting that it was not interpreting the decision to ban small talk. “Our officers will continue to be friendly, put it that way. We’re not going to be robots,” said Eric Bunday, a spokesperson for the Hillsboro Police Department. “We’re going to ask how their day is going and how’s the weather.”

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