The question "are police stops always legal" is simple, yet the answer can be complicated. A law enforcement officer must have a reason to pull you over. This means that an officer must observe something about your vehicle or driving which is in violation of the law, or which gives that officer a reasonable suspicion that you are.
Stops due to simple traffic and equipment violations are common, lawful and usually result in either the driver being warned or ticketed. It is wise to keep your vehicle properly maintained and legally licensed and registered, to obey speed limits and other traffic laws, and to never drive while impaired by drugs, alcohol or sleepiness.
The complicated part of the question posed is, how legal is it for an officer to pull you over randomly, or because they "have a hunch" or just don't like the way you look? This is tricky territory because what happens during your interaction with the officer can affect the result.
If you are pulled over, follow these basic rules:
- Be polite, unroll your window and turn your engine off.
- Leave your hands on the steering wheel until asked for ID.
- Do not make any furtive movements. Sit still until the officer approaches.
- Answer questions politely and briefly. The officer may try to get you to say things to incriminate yourself such as "Do you know how fast you were going?"
Remember that you do not need to consent to a search. If the officer is just fishing for a reason to search you, stay quiet. If the officer had no real reason to pull you over, don't give them a reason to become suspicious. In the absence of a reason, the stop is technically illegal until you give them a reason to escalate the situation.
What about DUI/DWI checkpoints?
According to the Supreme Court - which ruled in the City of Indianapolis v. Edmond case in 2000 - "in the absence of individualized suspicion of wrongdoing," random checkpoints are unconstitutional. Practically speaking, this still allows for DUI/DWI checkpoints as well as border security (illegal immigration checkpoints) when they are "designed to serve special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement." However, a checkpoint on a normal roadway, for no specific reason, is typically not allowable.
Learn your rights
If you were arrested and/or charged with a crime and you think the police didn't have a reason to stop you, speak with a lawyer today.