Can Police Pull You Over because of Your Ethnicity or the Color of Your Skin?

In the wake of September 11, 2001, and the national debate on immigration issues, the percentage of motorists pulled over who happen to be minorities has escalated, according to a number of studies. Can police stop you on the road because of your physical appearance? What are your rights under the U.S. Constitution?

The Requirement of Probable Cause

A threshold requirement of the 4th Amendment is that law enforcement officers must have “probable cause” to make a traffic stop. Unfortunately, the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court over the last 20 years have eroded this requirement substantially. While it may be technically a violation of your 4th Amendment right to protection against unreasonable search and seizure for police to pull you over because you appear to be Islamic or African-American, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1996 that a pre-textual traffic stop—a traffic stop made allegedly because of a traffic violation, but really because of race or ethnic origin—is permissible.
The court ruled that any traffic violation is sufficient basis for a traffic stop. Subsequent opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court have:

  • Concluded that police do not have to tell a motorist that they have a right to refuse a request to search the vehicle
  • Given law enforcement officers the power to search a parked vehicle, as well as the closed purse of a passenger in a car, even without probable cause

The Equal Protection of the Law

The 14th Amendment prohibits states from denying persons within their respective jurisdictions “the equal protection of the law.” As a general rule, making a traffic stop because of racial profiling is unconstitutional. However, as the courts have interpreted the 14th Amendment, to constitute a denial of the equal protection of the law, it must be shown that law enforcement officers had actual discriminatory intent, i.e., that they pulled the motorist over specifically because of racial profiling.

Contact Attorney Wayne Punshon

My name is Wayne Punshon. I have more than 32 years of legal experience, including 22 years as a Pennsylvania prosecutor. I have an extensive understanding of the criminal laws in Pennsylvania, as well as the rules of criminal procedure. Let me use my considerable knowledge, skill, experience and resources to protect your constitutional rights.

To schedule a free initial consultation, contact me online or call my office at 610-565-8412. I accept credit cards and will meet with you outside of traditional business hours, if necessary.