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Missouri traffic stop raises key questions about legal search and seizure

Police officers do not automatically have a right to search your vehicle in a routine traffic stop. There must be probable cause to conduct a search, and a traffic violation such as speeding, failure to signal or a broken tail light does not in itself constitute probable cause to search.

Still, many drug charges are based on evidence seized in unlawful searches, and any time drug charges follow a traffic stop, the legality of the stop and search should be scrutinized for errors on the part of police. With these issues in mind, consider the recent stop and arrest of two Missouri residents.

A probable cause statement indicates that multiple police agencies, including the Bourbon Police Department and the Lake Area Narcotics Enforcement Group, made a coordinated effort to stop a 29-year-old man in the event that he committed a traffic violation or his vehicle was seen to be in violation of equipment laws.

Police reportedly saw the man's vehicle go behind a store with a car wash and enter the car wash lane. Another person, a 28-year-old woman, was also in the vehicle, according to police.

The police also claim that the vehicle came out from the rear of the store but had not gone through the wash. The vehicle was then stopped by police for allegedly not having auxiliary lamps that were colorful enough, and because a temporary registration tag was attached to the back of the vehicle.

As the driver looked for proof of insurance, the vehicle was circled by a drug-sniffing dog, and police claim the dog indicated the smell of drugs near the driver's side door. The driver reportedly consented to a search, but no drugs were found. Police also searched the passenger, but no drugs turned up.

The driver was given a warning for the traffic violations and went on his way.

However, after the man had driven away, police claim to have found an ounce of methamphetamine and other drug paraphernalia behind the store. The man and his passenger were pulled over again and arrested.

Police claim that another half gram of meth was seized from the woman as she was being processed into jail.

The series of events that led to the arrests raises a number of key questions:

  • Did police have probable cause to stop the vehicle in the first place?
  • Is there sufficient evidence linking the drugs in question to the vehicle in question?
  • Did police in any other way violate the rights of the accused at any point before, during or after the traffic stop?

For more on these matters, please see our drug crime defense overview.

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