Wednesday, December 21

Illegal Traffic Stops in St. Johns County

I don't really want to help any criminals out of trouble, but I also don't want to see the rights of my fellow citizens trampled by overzealous police officers. I was recently the victim of an illegal traffic stop in St. Johns County, and I'm hoping that by writing about my experiences, you'll be prepared for a similar trampling of your own rights.

I'm sure there are some law and order folks out there who feel that any police officer can pull any driver over at any time. I'm not one of those people. Police officers need probable cause to pull you over in Florida/ free America. If they observe you running a red light or speeding or if your lights are out at night, that counts. Maybe if you're driving erratically or if your vehicle matches that of a suspect. Even if there's a planned DUI roadblock (though I have yet to see one in Florida), I can see it. We also have a loud music ban that creates probable cause to the chagrin of many teens. Windows that are too dark will lead to some debatable stops, and I was once pulled over for not having a license plate light (which is a legal stop but pretty borderline). However, in St. Johns County along Highway 1 coming out of St. Augustine, I was pulled over just because.

Technically, the officer started with the explanation that my lights looked kind of bright when he pulled me over. He didn't ask for a license and registration, and I hadn't gotten them ready because I wasn't planning on having to prove anything. I told him I had auto brights, which are legal. I did not have my fog lights on. He asked me to show him the difference between normal and brights. He also said dealerships can adjust the brightness. My vehicle has 150,000 miles, 75% at night, and exactly one traffic stop for excessively bright lights, so I'm thinking nope. The officer never mentioned speed (I wasn't speeding) or erratic driving (there wasn't any), so the sole reason for a nerve-wracking traffic stop was possibly slightly bright standard lights. No illegal lighting, lack of lighting, too dark tint, obscured license, etc. Nothing. 

At the end of our conversation, the officer said he was just pulling over people looking for DUIs. The problem is that he detained me, ran my tag, wasted my time, and forced me to allow him to see inside my vehicle and talk to me, all without probable cause, making it a violation of my rights.  

If St. Johns County wants to set up mandatory DUI checkpoints, then follow the rules for doing so, and go right ahead. The problem with illegal stops is that people develop a distrust for police. I don't think I was being profiled, but was this officer going to stop a Maserati, also for no reason? I bet cops avoid pulling people over for no reason if the vehicle exudes a sense that the owner might know the right people, whereas my vehicles are more average. However, all of us should have the same expectation that we will not be harassed by law enforcement if there is no probable cause.

Lastly, had I been under the influence or transporting illegal drugs, an illegal stop of my vehicle makes prosecuting the real infractions more complicated than if I'd been pulled over for a legitimate reason. I assume most lawyers would be able to get the case thrown out if the initial stop was illegal. Therefore, St. Johns County Sheriff's should put an end to illegal traffic stops.

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