“Looks like you’re doing a lot of work trying to avoid me,” quipped Officer Fletcher as he pulled over Ms. Starkey. It was 2 a.m. in downtown Rapid City the summer before last.
The officer had observed Ms. Starkey driving suspiciously and apparently trying to evade him. He turned on his sirens and stopped her vehicle after following her down Mount Rushmore Road, through an empty church parking lot and back to near a bar. Seeing evidence of alcohol consumption, the officer arrested her for driving under the influence (DUI).
Initially, the local circuit judge dismissed the arrest since the officer had failed to observe any actual traffic violations, such as speeding. “I am unable to discern specific and articulable facts which taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant this stop. There were no traffic violations that should have prompted the pursuit,” he ruled.
The judge’s order was appealed and the South Dakota Supreme Court reversed the decision. The court held that the traffic stop was legal, even though no actual traffic violations had been observed.
In the days of the Dragnet TV show, Sergeant Joe Friday probably would have reached the same conclusion.
State vs. Starkey recognized that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution places limits on the ability of the police to search, seize, and even make brief investigatory stops of citizens. Law enforcement must have at least “reasonable suspicion” based on specific facts before pulling over a driver. But conduct designed to evade contact with police may itself establish reasonable suspicion.
One of the important factors for the Court in upholding Ms. Starkey’s traffic stop was the setting in which it occurred. Eventually, after remaining stopped in her lane of traffic several car lengths behind the officer and circling through downtown at closing time, she ended up back near a bar.
An interesting contrast can be found in State v. Rademaker, decided in April of this year. There, the Court held that a driver’s avoidance of a sobriety checkpoint, standing alone, cannot justify a traffic stop. In that case, however, the driver had executed a wide turn, then sped away at 70 miles per hour on a gravel road, so the traffic stop that followed was indeed Constitutional.
The level of suspicious facts required to justify a police officer stopping a vehicle is less than that required to justify an actual arrest. Reasonable suspicion is all that is necessary for a police officer to stop someone. Probable cause is required before an arrest can be made. Because an arrest is much more intrusive than a quick stop, a greater showing of specific facts is required in order to comport with the Fourth Amendment.
Not uncommonly, an officer will identify additional facts which justify an arrest after making a stop (empty beer cans in view, for example). Otherwise, the officer is required to end the stop and allow the citizen to depart.
In the Starkey case, the South Dakota Supreme Court quoted from a United States Supreme Court case concluding that a suspect’s unprovoked headlong flight from officers in an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking could justify a stop (though not an arrest).
Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday was a pillar of common sense. He would have agreed with balancing the rights of citizens against the ability of officers to put two and two together before turning on their sirens.