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Published on 3/2/2022, 1:10:00 PM

Reasons to Stop a Motor Vehicle in Maryland

Under Maryland law, an officer must have a legal reason for stopping a motor vehicle. Nearly every driving while under the influence case in Maryland begins with the stop of a motor vehicle. It's important to examine if this stop was in fact legal, because a successful challenge of a motor vehicle stop in a DUI case can result in a full acquittal through suppression of evidence.

Most of these cases start with an officer stopping a motorist on the roadway, so understanding the legality of that stop is essential for any DUI defense lawyer.

Gavel with page with FrizWoods on it

What is a stop?

A routine traffic stop is considered a "seizure" of a person's motor vehicle. Legally, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution applies to any such "seizure", and thus it is the framework for nearly every challenge regarding vehicle stops. A "stop" occurs when an officer uses his lights and sirens, or even when he asks a driver to "halt". Having said that, an officer must actually effectuate the stop. If a vehicle was already stopped before an officer approached, a "seizure" for the purposes of a fourth amendment analysis may not have occurred.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution

The Supreme Court has grappled with what burden the Police Officers should have as a basis for stopping a vehicle. While many people are quick to say that the stop must be "supported by probable cause", the Supreme Court has held that a routine traffic stop must be supported by either "reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot", or "probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred".

Reasonable suspicion tends to be more than a simple hunch, but perhaps not necessarily as high as the "probable cause" standard applied to warrantless motor vehicle searches, or warrantless arrests. Meanwhile probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, is more straight forward.

Maryland Courts have used "probable cause" along with "reasonable suspicion" when evaluating roadside motor vehicle stops, which tends to confuse things further. In the Rowe v. State, 363 Md. 424 (2001) case, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that "Where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, a traffic stop and the resultant temporary detention may be reasonable." citing Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996).

Neither standard is technically "wrong", and the Courts tend to apply a straight forward approach to road stop suppressions in DUI, and criminal cases.

How does a Trial Judge figure out if a stop was legal?

Judge with paperIn Maryland, legality of traffic stops are "legal issues" and therefore are always decided by Judges. It would not matter if your case was set in District Court for a Judge trial, or Circuit Court for a jury trial, a legal issue is a matter that must be adjudicated by a Judge. The test applied by a Judge would be whether probable cause or a reasonable articulable suspicion exists to justify a stop depending on the totality of the circumstances.

Practically, legality of stops, or suppressing a motor vehicle stop, is argued in a "Motions Hearing." Once a Defendant challenges the legality of a motor vehicle stop, the burden shifts to the State to show it was in fact a legal stop.
In Circuit Court this is a separate hearing date where the State would produce witnesses, often Police Officers, to prove the legality of the stop. In District Court, this motions hearing may occur before a trial, or in the middle of a trial. An expert criminal defense lawyer may surprise a prosecutor with a motion to suppress a stop during a District Court trial in Maryland, which often confuses newer prosecutors.

What would a witness say?

Typically, officers must be qualified to establish a basis for their reasonable suspicion that a motor vehicle violation occurred. The big three, "training, knowledge, and experience" are usually the basis an officer will establish during testimony. A qualified criminal defense lawyer may be able to cross examine a police officer's "knowledge" or "training" to show they lack the necessary qualifications to identify actual moving violations.

Common Reasons for Stops in DUI Cases

There are two major common areas that DUI and Drug charge stops come from:

1. Moving violations

Moving violations in DUI cases tend to be some combination of speeding, swerving, and failing to obey traffic control devices like stop signs or traffic signals. If a law enforcement officer "observes" a moving violation, they may have grounds to stop your vehicle. Having said that, moving violations are codified in Maryland in the transportation article. Often Police stop vehicles without fully observing a "moving violation" or their version of what occurred does not in fact meet the transportation article's definition of a violation. Simple crossing a shoulder for example, is not grounds to stop a vehicle in Maryland according to the Rowe v State case cited earlier.

Speeding in Maryland is often proven with scientific evidence. These methods are subject to challenge based on calibration, lack of training, or improper utilization. Generally, most Police Officers use Radar, LIDAR, or pacing. While Radar and LIDAR are scientific, pacing is quite rudimentary. Pacing involves an officer driving behind a vehicle, and guestimating that vehicle's speed based on the speed of his own vehicle.

2. Equipment issues

Equipment issues in Maryland are typically harder to fight in court. If your tail light is out, Officers will have a valid reason to stop you. These statutes don't involve a great deal of interpretation, and thus tend to make up a large portion of legal road stops. In the age of body worn camera, often these equipment violations are captured by an officer's camera and thus harder to challenge in Court.

That doesn't make them bulletproof, as sometimes there are nuances to equipment laws in Maryland. For example, Maryland's tag light statute requires that the rear registration plate must be lit and clearly legible from a distance of 50 feet to the rear. Simply having one of a vehicle's two tag lights out may not in fact give an officer a legal reason to stop a vehicle.

What if the stop was not really about the driving, Pretext stops in Maryland

Judge with gavel in CourtIn the law, we call these stops "pretext stops", or "pretextual stops". The Supreme Court discussed these stops in the Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996) case, where a Defendant challenged his motor vehicle stop based on speeding, when the real reason for the stop was a suspicion of "drugs". Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled that as long as officers have a reasonable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred, they may stop any vehicle. Having said that, an Officer can still be cross examined about the "reasonableness" of the stop. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can unearth information about the pretext for the stop, and then attack the supposedly, "valid" reason for the stop.

Contact a qualified DUI lawyer or Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you've been charged with a DUI/DWI or Drug possession case, it's important to speak with an experienced lawyer as soon as possible. The criminal defense lawyers with FrizWoods are more than happy to provide a free consultation in person or by telephone. Don't wait until it's too late to suppress the stop in your criminal case.