Tooele County, Utah is a large, rural county 30 minutes west of Salt Lake City, with a couple small towns (Grantsville, Tooele), some mountains, salt flats, and one large, busy, east-west Highway (I-80).
Like many places around the state and country, the local law enforcement folks in Tooele have formed a “Multi-Agency Drug Enforcement Task Force,” with the expressed purpose of “investigating and prosecuting the illegal importation, manufacture, use, possession, dispensation, prescription, delivery….” you get the point. So when the members of the Multi-Agency Drug Enforcement Task Force get up in the morning and put on their Drug Enforcement Task Force Sunglasses, that four-lane, east-west highway starts to look like one large conveyor belt moving between a big pile of drugs (California), and a big pile of money (the rest of the country), and they get to work.
Their technique is pretty obvious: they find the cars with out-of-state plates, particularly those driven by people who fit the “drug courier profile” (you can guess what this means), and they start pulling them over. Now you might be saying “wait a minute here, they can’t just pull over cars for having out-of-state plates and fitting “the profile,” can they?” Well, no, they can’t. To pull someone over, they have to have “reasonable suspicion” of criminal behavior, and fitting a profile probably isn’t good enough, but they can certainly pull you over for a traffic infraction. It doesn’t take much: speeding (1 mile over the limit is enough), following too close, changing lanes without using a turn signal for long enough, having a broken tail-light or cracked windshield. Obviously, you don’t have to follow someone for long to catch them breaking a minor traffic law.
But maybe there’s still something bothering you about these stops: first they profile you, then they target you, then they watch you until you commit a traffic offense so minor that everyone does it all the time. You’re thinking, “can that be legal?” Yes, oh woeful reader, it can be. Cops are allowed to profile, target, and pull over anyone they want for any reason whatsoever, as long as they catch them committing any minor infraction. It’s called a “pretextual” stop, and it’s legal as hell.
After the traffic stop, there are many ways the police can get in a car and search it, especially if the driver doesn’t know the 4th Amendment law surrounding automobile searches, or the law of “consensual” police encounters. And then, of course, things go bad for the people in that car: citation, arrest, seizure of drugs and cash, and criminal proceedings.
If this sequence of events sounds familiar to you because it’s happened to you, in Tooele County or somewhere else in Utah, I urge you to get in touch and discuss your case with me during a free, confidential consultation. There are lots of ways a good criminal defense attorney could help: whether it be challenging the stop or the search, fighting to get your money back, negotiating a deal, helping an out-of-state client resolve the case without coming back, or taking a case all the way to trial. It certainly doesn’t hurt to discuss your options.