Seemingly innocent behavior can create reasonable suspicion officers need to justify a traffic stop if the behavior is repetitive.
About 3:00 p.m. on January 23, 2009, two Minneapolis police officers on routine patrol turned onto a road and noticed that the car immediately in front of them abruptly signaled and pulled over to park. The officers found this behavior strange, and circled the block to take another look at the car. The car was no longer parked and was traveling on the same road. The officers managed to get behind the vehicle, and it again abruptly signaled, pulled over and parked. The officers then initiated a traffic stop and found out that the driver, Mario Pacheco, was driving with a cancelled license. Pacheco was charged with driving after cancellation.
Pacheco argued to the district court that the stop was illegal because the officers did not have reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity, and therefore, all evidence should be suppressed. The district court granted Pacheco’s motion on the basis that Pacheco had not broken any traffic laws, and there was no finding of suspicious activity.
The State appealed the district court’s order. Because the order suppressed all evidence obtained from the traffic stop including the officer’s knowledge that Pacheco did not have a valid driver’s license, the State could not sustain the driving after cancellation charge.
In order for a traffic stop by law enforcement to be legal and valid, an officer must have a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” Berge v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 374 N.W.2d 730, 732 (Minn. 1985). While breaking a minor traffic law can provide this basis, the stop is not justified if it is based on “whim, caprice, or idle curiosity.” State v. Pike, 551 N.W.2d 919, 921 (Minn. 1996). Evasive conduct may or may not be justification for a stop. The officer’s observations are important. Eye contact and evasive conduct has been the basis to upheld a stop, as has behavior that may be innocent but that is repetitive. In this case, the Court of Appeals found Pacheco’s stop to be justified because he stopped abruptly and parked, which was innocent at first, but then when he repeated the conduct after the officers were behind him again, it created reasonable suspicion to believe he was engaged in illegal activity. In addition, the officers testified to the district court that they were in a high crime area and were concerned that Pacheco may have been casing houses for burglary reasons.