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How a simple traffic stop could turn into criminal allegations

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Whether police pull over a driver for a broken tail light or running through a stop sign, sometimes the encounter does not end with the original problem. In some cases, a seemingly minor traffic stop may instead end in the driver's arrest.

For the situation to involve an arrest, police first need a reason to arrest a driver. Although it's possible for an arrest to be unlawful, Colorado drivers should be aware of how a traffic stop might become a serious matter.

Why might law enforcement arrest a driver?

Common reasons for a search or arrest at a traffic stop include:

  • The driver's failure to pass a field sobriety test
  • Probable cause to believe that the driver is under the influence of drugs
  • Discovery drug paraphernalia, unlawful firearms, or stolen items

Drivers have a degree of privacy in their vehicles. Police cannot search a random vehicle on a whim. However, the right to privacy in the vehicle is a complicated subject.

Police can consider any evidence left in plain sight, such as contraband in the back seat. They may also search the vehicle if they have probable cause that a crime occurred or if the driver consents to the search.

What should a driver do?

Although a driver might disagree with the officer's decision, it is safer to comply with the arrest than to resist. Escalating the situation could lead to additional criminal charges. If the driver believes that the arrest or search was unlawful, they can challenge either one in court later.

At a traffic stop, it is important to remain calm and compliant, but it's also important to understand the right to refuse a vehicle search or breath test - and what the consequences may be. Because a traffic stop may be the most likely time that most people encounter law enforcement, knowing the many potential outcomes is essential.

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