In California and other jurisdictions, traffic stops that lead to drug arrests must be scrutinized thoroughly for signs of overreaching and unconstitutional police procedures. So-called traffic stops are occasionally a subterfuge intended to mask a search actually based on suspicion and racial profiling. An officer may conveniently characterize a stop as a traffic violation, then transform it into a search and an arrest on drug charges. This is not standard police practice, but counsel must investigate the potential for improper procedure to protect the suspect's rights.
The authorities in Milpitas stopped a 26-year-old San Jose man recently on a purported traffic violation that is not specified in the press reports. The officer allegedly smelled marijuana in the vehicle and made a search of the car. He reportedly found 2 pounds of marijuana.
The officer also reported that the man initially gave false information but was later identified by a computer search as having no valid driver's license. The police charged him with suspicion of possession and transportation of marijuana for sales, providing a false name and driving without a license. Criminal defense counsel must scrutinize the officer's purported procedure for inconsistencies or improprieties. The prosecution must prove that the police in fact stopped him for a suspected traffic violation and not as a pretense to make a search for suspected drugs.
A vehicle cannot be stopped in California without actual suspicion of a traffic violation or other reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. A full search for drugs can only be made upon probable cause, but this requirement is sometimes side-stepped by making a purported traffic stop and converting it into a search based only on suspicion and racial profiling. The transition from a traffic stop to a full search is often justified by claiming the smell of marijuana or perhaps the sighting of a packet protruding from an occupant's pocket. When drug charges are combined with signs or indications of improper police procedures, defense counsel has a duty to aggressively investigate and defend the case.
Source: Milpitas, CA Patch, "Milpitas Police Arrest Driver With 2 Pounds of Pot", Aug. 2, 2016