How a new law is changing California traffic stops

On Behalf of | Apr 25, 2024 | Criminal Defense |

Any California driver who’s been annoyed by the routine “Do you know why I pulled you over?” question asked by police at traffic stops will be happy to learn that they’re less likely to hear that thanks to a law that took effect at the beginning of the year. Now, officers generally must tell someone (driver or pedestrian) why they stopped them before asking anything. Moreover, the reason the officer initially provides must be included in all reports pertaining to the stop.

There is an exception to this shift in policy if an officer “reasonably believes that withholding the reason for the stop is necessary to protect life or property from imminent threat.”

An effort to limit pretext stops

The law is intended to prevent police from making “pretext stops.” These are where officers find a reason to pull over someone whom they suspect of carrying drugs or other offense.

Pretext stops typically involve something minor like a broken taillight or expired license plate. However, once the vehicle is stopped and they’re talking to the driver, police might start looking around inside the vehicle and even do a full search to find evidence they can use to make an arrest. Statistically, Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely to be stopped than white ones.

One Oakland group that has advocated for the change says that it could save lives. They said, “A simple explanation of the reason for the stop at the beginning can do a lot to prevent fear, panic and the urge to flee.”

What does this mean for California drivers’ rights?

If an officer pulls someone over and doesn’t provide a reason, they have a right to ask and expect an answer. The head of the California Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) says that if the officer still won’t give a reason, the person stopped should then invoke their right to legal representation. She also advises not to consent to a search of the vehicle without a warrant since “at that point, there has to be probable cause,” and to reiterate the right to an attorney. Of course, every situation is unique. Sometimes, it’s more important to worry about your safety in the moment.

If you find yourself charged with a crime after a traffic or pedestrian stop, it’s important to ensure that the stop and anything that occurred during and after it were legal. If not, evidence discovered could be ruled inadmissible. Seeking legal guidance can help you protect your rights.