This is Dennis Boren, criminal defense attorney and former felony prosecutor. Today, I want to talk to you about how a broken tail light can land you in prison for 20 years or more. It seems kind of outrageous, doesn’t it?
Let’s say you’re just going down the highway, and you don’t know it, but you have a tail light that’s out. And it just so happens that your vehicle has a Colorado plate on it, and you’re traveling through Texas. Well, police are looking for that.
Your license plate can make you a target
Now, do you think they stop everybody with a broken tail light? No, they don’t. But it piques their interest when it’s a Colorado plate or a Florida plate, some suspicious place that’s known for drug trafficking. So they stop you.
Is that a proper stop? Yes, because your tail light’s out. That doesn’t mean they’re going to write in the report that they were suspicious because you had a Florida or a Colorado plate. That’s not going to land in the police report. They’re just going to say, “You had a broken tail light.” That’s going to make the stop proper.
That’s also when the detention starts, and the time clock starts ticking. That’s when you need to turn on your video app on your phone when you get stopped, and the games begin.
You don’t have to let them search
The officer may want to search your car by consent, “Hey, can I search your car?” and you can certainly turn down the search. You don’t have to allow him to search. A lot of people are tempted to let them search because they want to look like they’re not guilty of anything, and they want to prove that to the officer. You do not have to do this.
The length of detention
In order to hold you any longer than just the time it would take to write you a citation for the traffic offense, the officer would have to be able to speak or articulate some reason why he wants to detain you beyond that time.
That’s why if you’re running your video app on your phone when you ask them that question, if they can’t say or don’t say, that’s going to help you if you ever have to challenge this. And of course, don’t cut and run. If you’re in a vehicle, that’s a felony in and of itself.
Sometimes officers will say, “Well, I’ve got probable cause to search because I smell marijuana.” I have extreme doubts if this is the case much of the time because it’s in almost every police report regarding a search of a vehicle alongside the road.
I know people that are holding that they aren’t smoking, and they’ve got everything wrapped up tight, tight, tight and hermetically sealed, and it’s not going to be able to be detected.
You could be arrested
Here’s the thing. If you’re stopped for what’s normally a Class C misdemeanor, the lowest level of crime in Texas, which is only punishable by $500 fine, up to $500 fine and no jail time, the officer can still arrest you. Yes, you can be arrested for a class C misdemeanor in Texas.
And then they can search your vehicle
But the problem is if they arrest you, they can search your vehicle–what’s called ‘incident to arrest.’ Here’s where it gets into the weeds a little bit. They’re going to have to follow their procedures that are laid out by their law enforcement agency, whether it’s a city police department, the Department of Public Safety or a county.
A potential violation
Often, they just dive right in and get to searching on the side of the road. That could well be a violation of their policies. Also, there could be an issue of detaining you too long. That alone could allow the judge to hang his hat on suppressing this evidence.
Now, what constitutes detaining you for too long is a matter of judgment. And that’s up to the judge to determine. There are some cases, but there’s no per se time. If you’re waiting for a drug dog to come and sniff, and if the officer hasn’t articulated very good reasons or even any reasons as to why you’re being held, and you’ve got that on video, or audio, even if the officer doesn’t answer you, that’s going to help you.
Follow best practices
Now, the best practice is, of course, and this is an absolute no brainer, not to be hauling around drugs or illegal substances in your vehicle. You’re really vulnerable to being discovered and getting a major sentence off a simple traffic offense. I hope this was helpful.