Top 5 Ways Traffic Stops Go Bad

It starts out as a “routine” traffic stop, but ends with criminal charges that loom over your career. It is easy to say in retrospect that many legal problems can be avoided simply by adhering to traffic laws and not getting pulled over in the first place, but since that may be easier said than done, here are some examples of how simple traffic infractions can result in serious problems:

1. Evidence in plain view: An officer stops a person for a simple traffic infraction like an improper lane change or failure to yield. However, the officer sees (or smells) illegal contraband in plain view when he approaches the driver. This allows the officer to have “probable cause” to investigate, including searching the vehicle. The search can often turn up evidence of contraband, drugs, firearms or other illegal materials.

2. Driving on Suspended (DOS): Many driving on a suspended license charges begin with a traffic stop due to a simple infraction. After the stop, the officer checks the driver’s license system in his database. If the person is returned as suspended, they are then charged with this Class 1 misdemeanor. The most common cause of this suspension is unpaid traffic citations or court costs, since not paying those tickets in 30 days will cause a person’s license to be suspended. So many DOS charges are brought because of a traffic infraction, and then the driver learns their license is suspended because they didn’t pay off their court costs or fines from a previous violation.

3. DUI suspicion: Erratic or reckless driving behavior can be a red flag for officers who suspect a driver of driving under the influence. If the officer smells an odor of alcoholic beverage coming from the driver, or sees bloodshot eyes or hears slurred speech, he may ask that the defendant take field sobriety tests or submit to a preliminary breath test. If the defendant appears to be intoxicated, admits to drinking or submits to the tests and does not perform them well, the officer might arrest the driver and take them to the station on probable cause for DUI.

4. Probation violations: Failure to adhere to the traffic laws can be problematic for people with pending court cases where part of their probation or agreement on a prior charge requires that they do not drive and be of general good behavior. These traffic infractions, depending on their severity, may be considered a breach of probation and can lead to a revocation of a suspended sentence if they are a violation of the probation terms.

5. Restricted license violations: Those who are driving on a restricted license due to a DUI conviction need to be especially careful. In addition to being cited for a traffic infraction, if the officer discovers that they are driving outside of their restricted driving privileges, they may be charged with the additional crime of driving outside of the restricted license permissions under Va. Code § 18.2-272. That charge is serious and could lead to a revoked suspended jail sentence and possible revocation of suspended fines. Judges in Virginia are known to impose active jail time for such violations.

Remember: Officers are not allowed to stop drivers based on a hunch or suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, they need to actually have a reason articulable suspicion for the stop. Any violation of a traffic law provides them with the justification for the stop. This is why lawyers so often ask clients, sometimes before anything else, why they were stopped in the first place. By breaking the traffic laws, you are automatically giving the officer the suspicion he needs to pull you over which leads to more problems. In the next article, we will examine the most surprising yet common ways people are pulled over.