Normally, a law enforcement officer may legally stop the driver of a vehicle if the officer has reasonable suspicion a traffic violation such as speeding has occurred. A case recently decided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, included an interesting footnote that may muddle the legal waters when border patrol agents are involved. In United States v. Valdes-Vega, the court stated in a footnote that a federal border patrol agent may not make a traffic stop based solely upon a violation of a state traffic law. Instead, Judge Pregerson said the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires the federal agent to wait for reasonable suspicion that a suspect has committed a violation of federal law before stopping a vehicle.
The Supreme Court of the United States briefly touched on a similar question earlier this year in Arizona v. United States. In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito said that because state law enforcement officers have the authority to enforce federal criminal laws, they should also be allowed to enforce violations of federal immigration laws. The opinion did not address whether the same may be true in reverse, however. Some argue it is not because, unlike the states, the federal government has only limited police powers.
Although the traffic stop issue was not the focus of the Ninth Circuit case, the footnote raises important questions regarding the authority of border patrol agents to make arrests and traffic stops based on state law. An argument may be made based on the footnote in Valdes-Vega that many traffic stops made by border agents are constitutionally unlawful. In fact, it may be the case that most border patrol arrest cases turn on whether a federal agent had reasonable suspicion to make a stop instead of whether the agent witnessed a traffic infraction for the same reason cited in Judge Pregerson’s footnote. It will be interesting to see how the courts treat this issue in the future.
Interactions with law enforcement officers generally fall into one of three categories. They include encounters, investigative detentions, and arrests. The category depends on the overall circumstances surrounding the interaction. If a reasonable person would not feel free to leave or terminate the encounter, it is normally considered a detention or arrest. The Fourth Amendment allows a law enforcement officer to detain you if the officer has a reasonable belief you committed a criminal act. The officer may also arrest you if he or she has probable cause to believe you committed such an act.
A routine traffic stop is considered a detention and must be reasonable. A court will determine whether or not a traffic stop was reasonable based on the circumstances of the interaction. Absent your consent, a law enforcement officer may not search your vehicle without reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed. In most instances, if a police officer witnesses a violation of state traffic laws the officer may arrest you and search your vehicle. If you were arrested and charged with a federal crime after your vehicle was searched in Texas, you should contact an experienced criminal law defense attorney.
If you were accused of committing a federal crime in the State of Texas, it is a good idea to contact an experienced West Texas criminal defense lawyer immediately.
Fourth Circuit Upholds Sentence in Firearms Case Despite Misstatements of Mandatory Minimum by Prosecutor and Judge at Sentencing – U.S. v. Davis, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 10, 2012
Investigators Increasingly Request Cell Phone User Data in Texas and Throughout the Nation, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 30, 2012
Can Federal Border Patrol Agents Pull Over Cars Based Only on State Traffic Law Violations?, by Orrin Kerr, The Volokh Conspiracy