Salem, OR – The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement officers must stick to questions “reasonably related” to the reason for a traffic stop and can’t ask questions that could lead to the discovery of other crimes.
Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported that the ruling will prohibit officers from turning a traffic stop into a fishing expedition for more serious offenses.
The ruling banned officers from asking questions about the presence of guns or drugs unless it's related to the reason for the stop.
“No longer can officers use a broken taillight or a failure to signal as a justification for scouting a driver’s car for illegal guns or drugs,” OPB reported.
The 2015 incident that brought the matter to the forefront was the case of Mario Arreola-Botello, who was stopped by Beaverton police on a traffic infraction.
Arreola-Botello gave police consent to search his vehicle, and the officer found a package of methamphetamine during the search, according to OPB.
His attorneys argued that the search of his car was unconstitutional because it was the result of the officer asking questions outside the scope of the investigation of Areola-Botello’s failure to use his turn signal.
Both a trial court and the Oregon Court of Appeals rejected that argument and cited that “unavoidable lull” policy which allowed officers to go off-topic during unavoidable waits as long as it didn’t extend the traffic stop, OPB reported.
But the Oregon Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts.
“Put simply, an ‘unavoidable lull’ does not create an opportunity for an officer to ask unrelated questions, unless the officer can justify the inquiry on other grounds,” the justices said in their ruling.
The ruling will change the way most officers and deputies in the state of Oregon do their jobs, according to OPB.
“Each officer or deputy in this case are going to have to change the way they conduct their traffic stops on a day to day basis,” Washington County Sheriff’s Sergeant Danny DiPietro told OPB. “It’s very significant.”
Law enforcement agencies all over the state were working to comply with the ruling as quickly as they could.
The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and the Salem Police Department told OPB they had requested guidance from their local prosecutors and were waiting to hear back.
Beaverton police, Gresham police, and the Oregon State Police said they were working on training bulletins for their officers.
The Portland Police Bureau told OPB it was reviewing the department’s training protocols and would update officers.
Multiple agencies said they have already told officers to keep chit-chat to a minimum but that the ruling has leeway if the officer is able to establish reasonable suspicion of a crime without discussing things unrelated to the reason for the stop.
“If a deputy pulls someone over for a traffic violation, walks up, smells the odor of alcohol and sees blood shot eyes, poor coordination in their hands, that would establish reasonable suspicion for a DUI,” Sgt. DiPietro told OPB. “Then they can inquire about that crime.”
Civil rights activists celebrated the ruling as a win for people of color.
“This decision closes a loophole in the protection of our constitutional rights that police had been using to conduct warrantless searches,” Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon, said. “And those searches had disproportionately targeted people of color.”
Oregon Justice Resource Center Executive Director Bobbin Singh called the ruling “symbolically incredibly important for communities of color,” OPB reported.
"As a person of color, what I’ll say is, that’s what white people’s expectations are.” Singh said. “People of color, when they’re stopped by the police, there’s not really any expectation of where the limits are.”
According to the Oregon Department of Justice, the Oregon Supreme Court has the final say on the case and it cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, OPB reported.