Stacey M. Washington, Attorney and CounselorAttorney and Counselor
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Could Your Trailer Hitch Get You Busted?

Continued tension nationwide between police and people of color has heightened awareness that police officers frequently feel empowered to stop motorists on the thinnest of pretexts - everything from improper pine tree deodorizers to oversized trailer hitches. Police often get away with questionable stops, but not always.

The Illinois Supreme Court determined last year that police officers in Chenoa overstepped their rights when they stopped a vehicle for having a ball-type trailer hitch that allegedly obscured the view of the rear license plate, a violation of Illinois Vehicle Code.

In State of Illinois v. Jose Gaytan, the officers stated they were monitoring motorists' speed with a radar gun when the purple Lincoln Mark V passed them. One officer later stated they decided to follow the vehicle not because it was speeding, but because of the car's flashy color and big tires. They ultimately stopped the vehicle and arrested a passenger, Jose Gaytan, for unlawful possession of marijuana.

Gaytan's lawyer fought the charge on the basis that the trailer hitch was not prohibited, thus, the police stop was unwarranted and the marijuana that was seized should not be allowed as evidence. A circuit court denied the defendant's motion to suppress evidence, but an appellate court reversed Gaytan's conviction. The Illinois Supreme Court later reinstated the conviction even while stating that the trailer hitch was not prohibited and the car should not have been stopped.

The Supreme Court judge stated that if the trailer hitch obscured the license plate at all, it was only a section at the bottom where a motto appeared. Too many vehicles in Illinois would be unlawful if the law was interpreted as the prosecutors in the Gaytan case requested.

Courts nationwide have issued a number of similar decisions not to suppress evidence even when the evidence is seized during a police stop that is made in ignorance of a law. Never the less, if you feel you face criminal charges that stem from an illegal police stop, it is always a good idea to discuss your case with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.

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