When Can An Officer Stop Your Vehicle? - KOTA Territory News

When Can An Officer Stop Your Vehicle?



Gary Jensen
Beardsley, Jensen and Von Wald

The Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to people driving their car.  Two circumstances justify law enforcement stopping a vehicle to search it: (1) if the officer has a "reasonable suspicion" that criminal activity (of any kind) may be afoot; or (2) the officer has "probable cause" to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.

What constitutes "reasonable suspicion" that criminal activity is afoot?  The South Dakota Supreme Court says it cannot be a product of "whim, caprice, or idle curiosity, but ... is enough that the stop is based upon ‘specific and articulable facts, which taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion."   Once reasonable suspicion arises, the officer may stop the vehicle to confirm or discount that suspicion.

How about "probable cause" to believe that a traffic violation has occurred?  According to our Court, "probable cause exists when the facts ‘would lead a reasonable and prudent person to believe it fairly probable that a crime has been committed."  The activity being witnessed must be a crime.  If it is not– if the officer is mistaken about the law - the stop is illegal and evidence obtained during a search will be suppressed.

There was no crime in State of South Dakota v. Wright, 2010 S.D.91.  The officer believed the driver he overtook and passed had an obligation to dim his lights after the officer passed him.  After explaining that there is no such obligation in the pertinent statute (the obligation to dim lights exists only when passing or meeting another vehicle, not when being passed), the Court held that the officer's mistake of law meant he had no right to stop the vehicle so his search was unconstitutional.  The evidence the officer found – marijuana - should be suppressed.

The Wright decision is helpful if you're interested in the issue of when law enforcement can stop vehicles driving down the road.

E-mail Gary


Lawline@KOTATV.com is intended as general information on legal issues affecting us all.  This information should not be relied upon in any particular case and should never be used in lieu of consulting with an attorney.


1.      You see yet another car accident at a spot where there have been many accidents in the past and will be more accidents in the future? 


2.      You learn another person is hurt using a machine that has injured others in the past and will injure others in the future? 


3.      You watch a dangerous practice – like where a school bus parks – you know is a disaster waiting to happen?  


What should you do? 


Try to prevent the next accident, injury, and catastrophe from happening. 


How can you do that? 


Send a letter or email to those responsible – the highway department, the owner and operator of the machine, the school district - putting them on notice of the danger.


Your letter or email will either prompt a "fix" or help the next innocent victim establish liability against those who failed to act.   


Taking a few minutes to write a letter or email can have a huge impact; you can be a difference maker. 

Powered by WorldNow

518 St. Joseph St.
Rapid City, SD 57701

Telephone: 605.342.2000
Fax: 605.342.7305

Couldn't find what you were looking for?
Powered by WorldNow
All content © Copyright 2000 - WorldNow and KOTA. All Rights Reserved. For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.