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Vehicle Stops in Montana

Lawful Vehicle Stops

Montana has established laws that allow a police officer the right to stop any person or vehicle that is observed in circumstances that create a “particularized suspicion” that the person or occupant of a vehicle has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense. In stopping the vehicle, the officer has the right to request the person’s name, present address, and an explanation of the person’s actions. If the person is the driver of a vehicle, the officer may demand the person’s driver’s license, the vehicle’s registration, and proof of insurance.

In addition, the purpose of the officer’s stop does not have to be related to any suspicion of driving under the influence. For instance, case law has shown a police officer that noticed a running, parked car located down a side street. Because the area had been known for burglaries, the officer decided to investigate.  Once the officer came upon the car, the officer smelled the odor of an alcoholic beverage and noticed the individual had slurred speech. Regardless of the initial reason for investigating the vehicle, the officer was still lawfully allowed to recognize the intoxicated state of the individual, resulting in an arrest and a charge of Driving Under the Influence.

Unlawful Vehicle Stops

Montana law has also established that an officer that has lawfully stopped a person or vehicle and is NOT in uniform must inform the individual immediately that the person is an officer before questioning the person.  Any report resulting from a stop by a non-uniformed officer who fails to inform that person their status as an officer may result in the report being inadmissible in court.

In addition, an officer must have a reasonable “particularized suspicion” based on the factual situation leading up to the stop in order to justify stopping a vehicle. For instance, in one Montana case, a police officer was found to have incorrectly stopped a vehicle and issued a DUI, after the officer saw the individual’s vehicle was “bordering on too fast” and waited too long at an intersection. No traffic laws were broken at the time of the stop, and it was determined that the circumstances provided an insufficient and unreasonable “particularized suspicion” to warrant stopping the individual’s vehicle. It is important to note that an officer’s “particularized suspicion” for stopping a vehicle must be reasonable based on the situation, and unjustified stops could likely be seen as unlawful.

As stated above, the purpose of the officer’s stop does not have to be related to any suspicion of driving under the influence. However, once the limited scope of the stop is accomplished, unwarranted additional intrusion on an individual by an officer has been found to be unlawful.  Just because an officer has the right to stop a vehicle does not give the officer the right to overreach his reason for the stop. Once the purpose of that stop has been completed, the officer has no right to extend the scope of inquiry without reason. A police officer who requests a BAC test with no reasonable suspicion to do so would be against the law.

Another important note to know is that Montana law requires that a vehicle stop must only last as long as necessary for the purpose of the stop. That means that it would be unlawful for an officer who pulled a driver over for suspicion of an out-of-date license plate to wait an hour for another officer to come with a breathalyzer machine to conduct a breathalyzer test. HOWEVER, this assumes that the officer DOES NOT have a reasonable suspicion that the individual has been driving or has been in actual physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If the officer comes up to the driver who has slurred speech, the 45 minute wait may become necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.

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