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Lawful/Unlawful Vehicle Stops in California

Under California law, a peace officer may arrest a person pursuant to a warrant signed by a neutral and detached magistrate and after demonstration of reasonable cause. Without a warrant, an officer may arrest a motorist when:

(1) The officer has probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense in the officer’s presence,

(2) The person arrested has committed a felony, although not in the officer’s presence, and

(3) The officer has probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a felony, whether or not a felony, in fact, has been committed.

For vehicle offenses, a peace officer ma arrest a person when the officer has reasonable cause to believe that the person had been driving while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or any drug, or under the combined influence of an alcoholic beverage and any drug and when any one of the following exists:

(1) The person is involved in a traffic accident,

(2) The person is observed in or about a vehicle that is obstructing a roadway,

(3) The person will not be apprehended unless immediately arrested,

(4) The person may cause injury to herself or damage property unless immediately arrested; and

(5) The person may destroy or conceal evidence of the crime unless immediately arrested.

A lawful stop and arrest occurs if there is a “traffic accident.” But what exactly is a traffic accident? Under California law, a “traffic accident” includes both unintentional and intentional events. An accident is interpreted from the side of whom the accident occurred to. An Unintentional accident occurs when both parties (the plaintiff and motorist) are unaware that the event is to occur. An intentional accident occurs when one party expects the outcome but the other party does not. For example, when a drunk driver intentionally drives her car into another car, this is an accident. We view the unexpected event from who is being harmed. But if both motorists intended the action, like asking another motorist to hit your car, this is not considered an “accident” for statutory purposes.

There are circumstances when the police cannot stop a vehicle without reasonable cause; this is driving while intoxicated checkpoints. A checkpoint is where the officer stations a blockage and stops every vehicle passing through. In order for the stop to be lawful, the government needs to show:

(A) Decision making at supervisory level

(B)  Limits on the discretion of the field officers

(C)   Maintenance of safety conditions

(D) Reasonable location

(E)  Time and duration

(F)   Indica of the official nature of the roadblock,

(G) Length and nature of the detention

(H) And, advance publicity.

If all eight elements are met, a police officer may stop a vehicle without reasonable cause.

An unlawful stop occurs where the officer has no reasonable cause that the person to be stop/arrested is driving under the influence. Furthermore, a checkpoint can become unlawful if any one of the eight elements is missing.


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