In recent weeks a Hawkins County traffic stop for a seatbelt violation led to the discovery of seven "one pot" meth labs. This type of arrest is becoming all too common in East Tennessee as police stop more and more motorists for seatbelt violations which ultimately lead to a search and discovery of evidence linking the driver or passengers to more serious crimes. The question then becomes, what turns a traffic stop for a seatbelt violation into a search?
Both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions protect citizens from "unreasonable searches and seizures." The stop of a vehicle and the detention of its occupants does constitute a seizure for purposes of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. However, when an officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, they may constitutionally stop a vehicle. This is where the seatbelt law comes into play. According to Tennessee Code Annotated § 55-9-603(a)(2) not wearing a seat belt in Tennessee is a misdemeanor violation. Because not wearing a seatbelt is a misdemeanor violation, when an officer witnesses a motorist not wearing their seatbelt, that fact alone gives the officer probable cause to stop the vehicle. What it does not do is give the officer the right to search the vehicle.
In the case of State v. Simmons, 2009 WL 2391403 (Tenn. Crim. App.) the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals addressed this exact issue. In
Simmons the Court spoke of Tennessee's "cite and release" statute which requires officers who observe certain misdemeanors to "issue a citation for the violation in lieu of arresting" the offender. A violation of Tennessee's seatbelt law is one of the misdemeanor violations that the officer shall issue a citation in lieu of arresting the offender. In fact, "the Tennessee 'cite and release' statute creates a presumptive right to be cited and released for the commission of a misdemeanor." Further, "violating the 'cite and release' statute infringes upon a person's right against unreasonable search and seizure." What does this mean, once an officer has stopped a car, that officer must not prolong the stop any longer than is necessary to write the citation, UNLESS the officer has some "reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity sufficient to warrant prolonging the stop." Reasonable suspicion means that the officer is reasonably suspicious that a crime has been, or is about to be committed.
In the recent Hawkins County meth lab bust the officer alleges that he had reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop because he could smell a "strong odor of ether" which is associated with the manufacture of methamphetamine. But officers do not always have such a strong reasonable suspicion as was the case in Simmons. In
Simmons the officer prolonged the stop because the occupants of the car were "nervous" and the officer had knowledge of past criminal activity of the driver. The Court said the reasonable suspicion in
Simmons was NOT strong enough to prolong the traffic stop.
Unfortunately we see traffic stops for seatbelt violations prolonged all the time. Some would even say that these seatbelt stops have become an epidemic and a tool officers use to find a reason to detain the driver long enough to get their consent to search the vehicle or to find probable cause to search. The law requires the officer to cite and release the driver unless there is reasonable suspicion to detain the driver further. However, we see more and more drivers detained rather than being cited and released. Once a seatbelt violation leads officers to evidence of more serious offenses, the driver of the vehicle is left to fight the legality of the stop and validity of the reasonable suspicion in court.
While police officers usually do their best to follow the law, sometimes they step beyond it and violate the rights of citizens leading those citizens to charged with very serious crimes. For more information on this topic, or to discuss your specific charges, please feel free to contact The Bowlin Law Firm to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney.
State v. Simmons, M200800107CCAR3CD, 2009 WL 2391403 (Tenn. Crim. App. Aug. 5, 2009)