As the months of nightly protests show, Portland residents are committed to reducing racial bias in policing and protecting all citizens from law enforcement overreach. One of the ways to achieve both is to limit the broad powers that police are given in common interactions with citizens, such as traffic stops.

One of the most persistent problems nationwide is the practice of “pretextual stops.” This is when an officer pulls someone over for a small infraction, like failure to signal a turn or having a broken taillight, and then uses that stop to investigate much larger crimes like drug possession, weapons offenses or drunk driving. Because this practice is perfectly legal in much of the country, it is too often used to disproportionately target African-American and Latino drivers. Thankfully, however, many will be pleased to learn that the practice is no longer allowed here in Oregon.

A ruling in late 2019 by the state Supreme Court (which may have been overlooked by many at the time) essentially banned the practice of using pretextual stops as a justification for a proverbial fishing expedition. It requires officers to limit interrogations of drivers to questions that are “reasonably related” to the offense for which the driver was stopped.

While the de facto banning of pretextual stops is a good thing for all drivers who get pulled over (especially those who might be subjects of racial discrimination), it does not entirely protect drivers from unrelated questions or searches of their vehicle. Police can still ask about other offense or request to search the vehicle if they see plain-sight evidence of something illegal (such as drugs sitting on the passengers seat) or behavior/evidence sufficient to raise suspicion about a specific crime (such as suspecting drunk driving if the driver has slurred speech and smells like alcohol).

That being said, the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision to ban pretextual stops gives all of us more defense options if we face criminal charges stemming from a traffic stop.
We may be able to challenge the reason for the initial stop or the questions that arose during the stop.

If you’re facing criminal charges and don’t know where to turn, please discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.