While most people consider themselves unlikely to become the subject of a police investigation, there is one common situation in which ordinary citizens fall under police scrutiny: the traffic stop. Police officers are trained to search for evidence of illegal activity every time they pull over a driver, whatever the reason for the stop. While the consequences for speeding, failure to maintain lane, careless driving or Driving Under the Influence (DUI) can be bad enough – carrying the possibility of loss of driving privileges, assessment of motor vehicle points and higher insurance rates – things become far more serious if the police search for and find illegal drugs in a car.  Teenagers and young adults – who are presumed by police to be more likely to be in possession of illegal recreational drugs – are often the targets of such searches late at night, while driving to and from wherever it is that teenagers actually disappear to when they leave the house to “hang out with friends.”

Police are legally permitted to stop a car for a relatively insignificant driving infraction, such as excessive window tints or improperly colored headlights, then expand their inquiry if they find anything suspicious during the traffic stop. We often hear from our clients that the initial reason for a stop was simply a pretext to search the vehicle (based on the client’s interpretation of the police officer’s questions), and that the officer suspected there was going to be alcohol or marijuana in the vehicle because the car was being driven by a younger person late at night. In cases like this, the police officer often asks the driver and passengers directly whether they have drugs or alcohol in the car, or whether they have been drinking. Sometimes the officer claims that he can smell the odor of either burned or raw marijuana and asks whether the driver will give their permission to search the vehicle. In many cases, even though not legally obligated to do so, the person gives their permission, or “consent,” to search the car.

Sometimes, the driver consents to a search of the vehicle not knowing that a passenger was in possession of some type of illegal substance, only to find that the passenger coyly jettisoned the illegal substance from his pocket into the common area of the automobile. Then, depending on where the illegal substance is found, the police can charge everyone in the vehicle with possessing the drugs. If the drugs are found in a common area of the car accessible to more than one occupant, the police officer may use the fact of the discovery of the drugs to pressure the occupants into making an admission as to the ownership of the drugs. They may say, for example, that unless someone owns up to possessing the drugs, that everyone will be charged. This often results in the creation of a false confession, when one person, in the heat of the moment, attempts to save his or her friends or family from prosecution.

The penalties for possessing a “Controlled Dangerous Substance” (CDS) – i.e. illegal drugs – depend on the type and amount of the substance. For some drugs, the charges will be heard in municipal court, but possession of certain more dangerous drugs are prosecuted in Superior Court, whatever the amount in possession. In either case, a driver charged with possessing a CDS while operating a vehicle faces a two-year mandatory license suspension and criminal charges relating to the possession.  Those criminal charges can result in fines, penalties, probation, and even jail. In addition, if the person charged with a CDS offense is a student, his or her school may take administrative action based upon the outcome of the case that could include suspension or expulsion.

It is critically important to immediately retain experienced criminal defense counsel in these types of cases. Defense counsel will obtain the discovery – any police reports, summonses, audio and video recordings of the stop and questioning, radio logs and lab reports of the drugs – to determine whether the initial stop was valid and whether there is a viable motion to suppress any drugs that were found in the car. The suppression may be based either on the invalidity of the initial stop or upon the warrantless search of the vehicle. Given the serious potential penalties, experienced criminal defense counsel may be able to suppress the search or negotiate a much less onerous outcome.

Robert Stahl, and his firm, Stahl Criminal Defense Lawyers aggressively defend individuals charged with complex federal and state crimes. Founder Robert G. Stahl is recognized as one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the NY/NJ area for his skills, knowledge and success. To contact the firm, call 908.301.9001 for the NJ office and 212.755.3300 for the NYC office, or email Mr. Stahl at rstahl@stahlesq.com.