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SD Supreme Court: Delay At Stop Sign Not Enough Justification To Stop Car

Jeff Cole
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Partner at Zimmer, Duncan & Cole

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Jeff Cole
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In its opinion of State v. Herren released on December 22, 2010, the South Dakota Supreme Court stated that witnessing a driver stop at a stop sign for roughly 40 seconds was, by itself, not sufficient evidence to justify the subsequent traffic stop and DUI conviction of the driver.  However, coupled with an anonymous tip, the delay was sufficient to justify the traffic stop, and the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the driver.  

In this case, a Brookings County Deputy Sheriff stopped the driver’s vehicle primarily because of the officer’s observation that the vehicle hesitated too long (roughly 40 seconds) at a stop sign at a rural intersection.  The officer was also aware of an anonymous tip stating that a blue “Ford Durango” was being driven by a drunk driver on Highway 14 from Flandreau, South Dakota to Toronto, South Dakota.  The main issue facing the court was whether the officer had “reasonable suspicion” to make the investigatory traffic stop. 

Generally, a traffic stop must be based on objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion that criminal activity has occurred or is occurring. In other words, the question here was whether the officer was justified in pulling over the vehicle based only on the driver’s delay at the stop sign, coupled with the anonymous tip. 

The court actually held that the officer’s observance of the 40-second delay at the stop sign was itself not enough justification to pull over the driver.  Similarily, the anonymous tip, by itself, was not enough justification either, because the officer had no way to verify whether the vehicle he saw was the same as the vehicle that was reported.  The tipster stated that the vehicle was a blue “Ford Durango,” when in fact the vehicle was a green Dodge Durango.  

However, taken together, the delay at the stop sign and the anonymous tip gave the officer reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop.  Together, they provided the officer with more than a “hunch” necessary for a valid traffic stop. 

This case is certainly interesting because of the rule the court seems to announce by stating that a delay at a stop sign is by itself not justification for a traffic stop.  This rule should likely be qualified, and may only apply to situations, as was the case here, where there was no other traffic behind or adjacent to the driver. The court notes the law itself does not specify how long a vehicle should stop at a stop sign.  If no law is being broken, why should the driver be pulled over?  On the other hand, the courts have generally recognized that officers may rely on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences and deductions about the information available to them. 

What do we learn from this case?  According to the court, a driver’s mere delay at a stop sign may not be enough for the police to make a traffic stop, but coupled with other information, such as an informant’s anonymous tip, a traffic stop is allowed.

Category: Criminal Defense

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