The Turn Signal Statute and Pretextual Stops: Why am I really being pulled over?

January 1, 2023 marked the end of an era for law enforcement and pretextual traffic stops. For decades, Indiana had a turn signal statute that was broad enough to snare nearly anyone a police officer followed for long enough.  Prior to the law change, Indiana required motorists to signal continuously for at least 200 feet before changing lanes or making a turn and 300 feet if in a 50 mph or greater speed zone.  Is proper turn signal distance enforcement a top priority for police?  Usually not by a long-shot.  That is, unless the police officer is curious about something completely unrelated to turn signals.  Meet what is known as a “pretextual stop.”  This is where a police officer stops a motorist for some minor infraction when the plan all along is to investigate the motorist for something else; a narcotics offense for example.    

A common scenario:  Police officer sees a person leaving a residence well known for narcotics trafficking.  Police want to further their investigation into that house.  Officer follows the motorist until a traffic infraction of any kind is observed and the motorist is pulled over.  Once stopped, the officer can now learn and verify the driver’s identity (much better for police than just a “street” name). If the officer sees or smells anything illegal in the vehicle, then the officer will be able to search the vehicle without a search warrant in most cases.  A drug dog might be taken around the outside of the vehicle during the stop.  A positive indication by the dog will typically justify a search of the vehicle.  Police routinely ask questions like “where are you coming from?” during any traffic stop.  The motorist might volunteer valuable information about who owns the house, etc. without realizing it.  Even if nothing is searched during the stop, the police can now add the motorist’s information to their drug house file and analyze the connections between the motorist, the vehicle, and whatever else is known about the house.  Note that police will also now have accurate information on the vehicle including its VIN.  All of that information can be then cross-referenced with other sources such as BMV records, mug shots, and prior police reports.  More info for the drug house file! 

But remember, none of this can happen until the officer has at least a reasonable suspicion to believe a crime or traffic infraction has been committed!  Simply leaving someplace the police believe is a drug house, without more, won’t be enough in court and the police know it.  Indiana’s former turn-signal law was viewed by police as the “old reliable” for this right up until its repeal.  Everyone knows not using turn signals at all is as illegal as speeding, but I don’t think much of the public knew about the distance requirement.  Moreover, it is often difficult to challenge an officer’s assertion that a signal was given, but not for a full 200 (or 300) feet.  I’ve seen hundreds of people end up being charged with possession with intent to distribute and other crimes carrying serious minimum (let alone maximum) sentences, all stemming from a traffic stop for failing to signal for a full 200 feet.

Needless to say, pretexts have the potential for far more nefarious purposes.  Pretexts have been abused to facilitate stops of people based on race and other profiles.  Presence in what police deem a “high crime area” and “looking out of place” are other common motivations behind a pretext stop.  Police units created around a specific purpose such as narcotics investigation or crime reduction in “hotspot” areas routinely make use of pretextual stops.  Grant money dependent on results and the possibility of civil forfeiture can make pretexts all the more tempting.  The beating death of Tyre Nichols by members of the Memphis Police Department’s Scorpion crime reduction team is a clear example of the use and extreme abuse of a pretextual stop.  Pretexts also tend to be more dangerous than a routine stop for police as well.  Very often, the motorist will quickly realize the officer, or much more commonly with pretexts – officers, are acting far too zealously for a routine traffic stop.  Fear and mistrust on both sides can quickly escalate into physical confrontation.  Verdicts and settlements for severe civil rights violations can easily cost millions in tax dollars.  More costly still is the further eroding of public trust with each incident.       

Pretextual stops remain legal in Indiana so long as the officer can give objective facts showing a reasonable suspicion that a crime or infraction happened or was about to happen.  This must be shown without relying on any outside suspicions by the officer. 

The change in the law here is a benefit.  Fewer traffic stops will inherently reduce the opportunities for police / public interactions to turn bad.  Eliminating “gotcha” type minor offenses that can serve as the basis for a pretext can also produce improved police work. Limiting pretexts may compel police to make better use of tools preferred by the law, like search warrants, rather than scrambling to find a reason to justify a pretextual stop in hopes of a lucky break. 

In any criminal matter you should have a qualified attorney review your case for possible search and seizure issues.  When properly challenged, a judge can exclude (or suppress) evidence obtained illegally.  Suppression of evidence may substantially improve your defense and could ultimately lead to dismissal of the entire case against you.  As a former deputy prosecutor and supervisor in a narcotics prosecution unit, I encountered countless search and seizure issues.  I’ve successfully challenged illegal searches of my clients as defense counsel.  Put my nearly two decades of experience to work for you!