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Why Do Officers Need Not Consider Innocent Behavior In The Evaluation Of Reasonable Suspicion To Stop A Vehicle?

The Arizona Supreme Court in the case “State v. Evans” basically stated that an officer would not need to eliminate reasonable actions or consider other reasons why someone may be acting the way they were, so it would be good enough for a traffic stop if they simply saw something they felt was grounds for reasonable suspicion. It further stated they would not have to consider innocent reasons behind why someone might be doing what they were doing.

In the Evans case, the officer performed a traffic stop because he noticed that a driver was flailing his arms with closed fits towards a truck’s passenger. The officer ended up discovering that the person was driving on a suspended license, he believed the person was impaired and he found marijuana in the vehicle, so they ended up being charged with felony possession, aggravated DUI of class 4 felony and they ended up being convicted.

The defense actually cross-examined the officer, and the officer agreed they did not observe anyone actually getting hit, and simply saw someone waving their arms around even if their hands were in a fist. He argued over the arm movements, even though the arm movement could very easily not have been any type of any criminal activity because it could have simply been that the person spoke with their hands because many people speak with their hands when they talk loudly.

The Arizona Supreme Court held that the officer did not need to consider possible innocent conduct and they simply needed to have reasonable suspicion to believe that some sort of crime or traffic violation had occurred, meaning they did not have to eliminate the innocent conduct.

Officers have a community care-taking function and the court might reason that if an officer believed someone was in need of assistance, if they were parked on the side of the road even if they were parked legally, if they were pushing a car down the road or changing the tire, then the officer would be allowed to go up to that individual or go up to a vehicle based on their community care-taking function.

This is probably what was relied upon in this case, that the officer possibly believed the passenger in the vehicle was in danger even if it may have been just an argument where the person used their hands while having a verbal argument with another person. Officers can stop someone just to ensure the passenger is okay and that there is no assault taking place.

This really lessens people’s constitutional rights because it would basically be considered a proper reason to stop the vehicle if an officer believed anything was taking place. This really opens the door to officers having carte blanche to perform a traffic stop if they can just point to something that might be amiss.

What Would Classify As Probable Cause, And How Important Is It?

The police would not need probable cause to stop someone, because they would just need reasonable suspicion. In an interesting case that came out a few years ago, and I believe it was even fought in the State v. Evans, an officer pulled over a vehicle because the person was Hispanic. The officer indicated that the driver seemed to be leaning forward, grasping the steering wheel tightly, and that he had a Mexican style haircut which was the officer’s reason for stopping the vehicle.

The courts stated there was nothing suspicious about what the officer observed because it included far too many people who might be engaged in innocent activity, so the traffic stop in this case was not appropriate.

We have something that is arguably similar although the courts have ruled that it was appropriate most likely because of the community caretaking function of police officers. They finally ruled that the defendant’s Hispanic appearance was not a proper factor to consider in determining whether the police officer had reasonable suspicion to stop them in light of large numbers of Hispanics in the area, although there were other reasons to stop the vehicle. This case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was back in year 2000.

There was another case that involved someone who was just grasping the steering wheel, staring straight ahead and scratching his beard. The court said there was not enough reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle because scratching the beard or scratching his head was not suspicious behavior. A Hispanic driver glancing, scratching his head and gripping the steering wheel tightly was insufficiently particularized to provide a reasonable suspicion of someone being an illegal alien.


It seemed like the border control agent was familiar with the style that was popular in Mexico and so they assumed that the person whom they stopped had that style.

What Could Be Considered Suspicious Activity Or Something That Looked Out Of The Norm?

Usually, an officer would pull someone over for failing to drive within a single lane, failing to stop prior to a sidewalk, driving in the bicycle lane or making a wide turn which is things that I see officers listing as reasonable suspicion in order to stop a vehicle. Upon approaching the vehicle, the officer would be likely to mention in their report that they noticed bloodshot and watery eyes, an odor of alcohol, a flushed face or slurred speech which would then prompt them to have the person step out of the vehicle in order to launch into a DUI investigation.

How Would This Play Out In The Near Future?

I hope officers would be given on-person body cameras and hopefully dash-cams in the near future. I have the equivalent of a dash-cam in my vehicle and it is not a problem because the sun does not destroy the camera.

I am hoping we head towards that direction because we are really at an area now where constitutional rights can potentially be violated simply on the word of a police officer. We have been heading that way for quite a long time and this would just give more ammunition for police officers to basically say whatever they wanted.

The judge would have to decide whether there was enough reasonable suspicion to stop someone so that the officer could investigate whatever they wanted to, by asking for the person’s license, registration and insurance or seeing whether the person had bloodshot and watery eyes. This usually tends to lead to a DUI investigation or potentially even charges for possession of drugs or possession of drug paraphernalia.

We do not often hear about situations where someone was pulled over and kept on the side of the road for half-an-hour before they were let go because there was absolutely nothing wrong and they did not commit any crime at all. Constitutional rights are not just there to protect guilty people; they are also there to protect innocent people. These rights unfortunately come up in criminal cases where someone had been charged with an offense whereas there were many people who had not done anything wrong, but had suffered the consequences of the laws as they were written.

They might end up being free to leave without being charged with any type of offenses and they might not end up in court, but nevertheless they would have had their time taken away when they would have had to spend time on the side of the road or with an officer taking them away from their lives, because the purpose of constitutional rights would be to protect the innocent as much as the protect the guilty.

For more information on Probable Cause, a free initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you’re seeking by calling 480-900-0384 today.

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Brian Douglas Sloan


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