Oregon Supreme Court Rules Cops Can No Longer Ask Unrelated Questions at Traffic Stop

The Oregon Supreme Court recently ruled that during a traffic stop, the police can no longer ask unrelated questions.

The ruling, which was made in November, bars officers in Oregon from asking questions unrelated to the reason a driver was pulled over. If a driver is pulled over due to a broken taillight or a failed turned signal, for example, officers no longer have an excuse to search someone’s vehicle. This ruling ends the practice of law enforcement officials turning a routine traffic stop into a vehicle search for a more serious offense, Oregon Public Broadcasting previously reported.

Quick Facts about the Ruling:

  • The November ruling was based on the case of Mario Arreola-Botello, who was pulled over by an officer from the Beaverton Police Department in 2015 for failing to signal a turn.

  • While Arreola-Botello was searching for his registration and proof of insurance, the officer who stopped him, who has been identified as officer Erik Faulkner, began asking questions, according to the ruling. Faulkner asked if Arreloa-Botello had any drugs or weapons in the car and asked permission to search his car. The driver agreed to have his car searched and the officer found methamphetamine on the floor between the driver’s seat and the door.

  • The Oregon Court of Appeals disagreed with Arreola-Botello that Fulkner’s questioning went outside the scope of a routine traffic stop, stating that Fulkner had asked the questions during an “‘unavoidable lull’ in an investigation, such as when a person is searching for requested documents,” the ruling read.

  • The Oregon Supreme Court disagreed with the court of appeals decision, stating in their ruling that “an officer is limited to investigatory inquiries that are reasonably related to the purpose of the traffic stop or that have an independent constitutional justification. Put simply, an “unavoidable lull” does not create an opportunity for an officer to ask unrelated questions, unless the officer can justify the inquiry on other grounds.”

  • Sgt. Danny DiPietro, a spokesman for the Washington County Sheriff's Office, told Jefferson Public Radio that officers are going to have to change the way they conduct traffic stops following the ruling. “If a deputy pulls someone over for a traffic violation, walks up, smells the odor of alcohol and sees blood shot eyes, poor coordination in their hands, that would establish reasonable suspicion for a DUI. Then they can inquire about that crime,” he told the radio station.

People of Color are stopped more frequently, studies show

  • A 2018 report on Portland’s traffic stop data found that Black/African American drivers “were searched at significantly higher rates when compared to overall stop rates.” The report also found that “Black/African American drivers are significantly more likely to be the subject of a consent search and significantly less likely to be the subject of a probable cause search.”

  • On stopping pedestrians, the data found that although the ratio of stopped Black/African American has declined in the past five years, there has been an increase in stops of Hispanic pedestrians.

  • Another study by the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill in 2017 found that Black drivers were 63 percent more likely to be stopped in the U.S. than white drivers. It also noted that Black drivers are 115 percent more likely to be searched.

Oregon Cracks Down on Racially Motivated Crime

In June, a bill in Oregon that would crack down on racially motivated 911 calls was passed through the state Senate. The bill, also known as HB 3216, would allow victims of color who had the police called on them to sue the caller for $250 if the victim could “prove the caller had racist intent, and that the caller summoned a police officer to purposefully discriminate or damage a person’s reputation,” the Statesman Journal previously reported.

Oregon Representative Janelle Bynum, the only Black member of the Oregon House of Representatives, introduced the bill. While she was canvassing door-to-door in Portland for her re-election in July 2018, the police were called on her because a white woman said Bynum looked “suspicious.”

“I don’t know if race had anything do with her call — she didn’t say that — but race had everything to do with my reaction, and my fear of not being treated well, my fear of maybe being misunderstood,” Bynum previously told The New York Times. “I was, of course, in disbelief.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.