An arrest for drunk driving or drug possession doesn’t need to begin with a suspicion of these specific crimes. In fact, police officers typically only need the thinnest of excuses to pull over a driver. From there, they can further investigate the driver or the vehicle.
These are called pretextual stops, and they are a very common practice among law enforcement in Indiana and across the country. Here’s how they work: Police officers observe traffic going by, spot someone that they find suspicious, then pull them over for a very minor traffic infraction (such as failure to signal a turn) or for a problem with their vehicle (a nonfunctioning brake light, for instance). The reason for the stop is a convenient excuse, but what they’re really looking for is evidence of a larger crime (like drunk driving, drug possession or human trafficking).
In theory, pretextual stops are beneficial to everyone because they give police broader authority to investigate crimes and to keep us all safe. But in practice, they result in heavily biased enforcement of laws, harassment of citizens and sometimes lethal encounters that didn’t need to happen.
There are about 20 million traffic stops per year across the United States, which equates to about 50,000 stops every day. If pretextual stops were unbiased, the percentage of stops of drivers of a certain race would be roughly equal to population statistics. But studies show that despite making up a much larger share of the population, white drivers are 20 percent less likely to be pulled over than African American drivers are.
Racial bias is the most prevalent form of bias in pretextual stops, but it doesn’t necessarily stop there. Certain police officers might be more likely to be suspicious of someone who is poor and driving a rusty old sedan, compared to someone driving a brand-new SUV. Other officers might have biases based on age, gender or perceived disability. Pretextual stops provide a lot of opportunity to act on these biases, even if police aren’t aware that they are doing so.
Moreover, one could argue that pretextual stops erode our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. If police can stop any driver for nearly any reason, we all become suspects even if we haven’t done anything to warrant suspicion.
Thankfully, some states are taking steps to reduce pretextual stops by limiting the offenses and/or vehicle violations that police can use as a pretext. Hopefully, Indiana lawmakers will do the same.
In the meantime, if you’ve been arrested for DUI or any other crime related to a traffic stop, please discuss the details with an experienced criminal defense attorney.