The vast majority of us have been pulled over at some point in our lives. Whether it be for speeding or a random traffic stop, being pulled over is often an unpleasant situation. For some of us, being pulled over led to further complications, such as police conducting a search of your vehicle. But can police just pull you over whenever they feel like it? Can they search your vehicle? The short answer is, it depends. Generally, police cannot simply pull you over when they “feel like it.” But police officers do have a fairly low threshold to meet when it comes to conducting traffic stops, as seen in the Indiana Court of Appeals recent decision of Santiago v. State.1 This key case analyzing your rights against the competing interests of law enforcement is the topic of this blog post.
In Santiago, the Defendant, Edgar Santiago, was challenging the constitutionality of his misdemeanor conviction following a traffic stop. In 2018, a Police Officer was stopped behind a Toyota pickup truck at a red light. The police officer ran the license plate number of the truck and saw that it belonged to a man named Valentine Hernandez, whose driver’s license had been suspended. Acting upon the belief that Hernandez was driving the vehicle, the police officer turned on her patrol lights and pulled the truck over for a traffic stop. Upon approaching the vehicle, the police officer told the man that she had pulled him over for driving with a suspended license. At this point, the man instructed the police officer that he was not Hernandez, but instead his cousin, Edgar Santiago. The police officer asked for his driver’s license, and Santiago informed her he did not have it, but provided his Mexican Identification card. The officer thereby ran the name and found out that Santiago’s driver’s license had also been suspended. Santiago was charged a Class A misdemeanor, driving while suspended.
Santiago subsequently appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing the stop violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Specifically, Santiago argued that the initial stop was Constitutional because the officer was acting under reasonable suspicion, but that the stop became unconstitutional once the officer discovered that Hernandez was not driving the car. The Court of Appeals did not agree, and instead affirmed the trial court’s conviction. In reaching their decision, the Court noted that the police officer had every right to ask for Santiago’s driver’s license to obtain his identity. The Court stated that because it “was not immediately apparent [Santiago] was not the owner of the vehicle” the officer could ask for a driver’s license to confirm his identity. The Court goes on to say that the officer even had “an obligation” to ensure that the driver could legally drive on Indiana roads. In sum, the court of appeals found the stop constitutional and affirmed the decision of the trial court.
This case highlights the importance of staying up to date in the ever-changing legal landscape. Knowing the status of developments in the law is the key to avoiding criminal liability, as well as being an engaged citizenry in our participatory system of government. This blog post on a key new case was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle criminal defense cases and appeals of criminal convictions throughout the state. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.