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What can law enforcement ask you at a traffic stop?

Bellflower DUI Checkpoint - 1

Stuart Palley/KPCC

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies conduct a DUI checkpoint in Bellflower on March 6, 2014, near the intersection of Woodruff Avenue and Alondra Boulevard.

Sheriffs recently testified at the Texas State Capitol that state troopers in border counties are often too aggressive against citizens pulled over for routine traffic stops, but the allegations are hardly confined to state troopers.

If you are stopped what questions must you answer? Following recent allegations of harassment along the Texas border, the Fronteras Desk's Lorne Matalon looked into what questions that law enforcement, state or federal, can ask you.

The answer is theoretically simple: If you’re the driver, you must show your registration, insurance and driver’s license. The exception is in Arizona where police can ask you about immigration status.

If you’re just a passenger and you’re not being detained for a traffic violation, you don’t have to show anything.

Fronteras Desk asked Texas DPS Captain Luis Najera what questions his troopers are legally allowed to ask at a traffic stop.

“As far as the questions that the trooper is permitted to (ask), there are really no restrictions," he said.

We asked Najera, what exactly a citizen is compelled to answer?

"Legally? They’d be compelled to identify themselves and present their driver’s license," he said.

And that’s all, Najera said.

Najera runs DPS in five West Texas border counties in a territory that extends to the New Mexico border. Neither DPS nor Najera has responded publicly to damning testimony April 7, 2014 from sheriffs at the Texas Capitol in Austin.

The Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, a state-funded nonprofit representing local law enforcement in 20 Texas borderland counties, said state police tactics are fraying nerves among borderland citizens.

Zavala County Sheriff Eusevio Salinas summed it up for his delegation.

“It disrupts the community," he testified before the Texas Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security. "It creates mayhem.”

In January, an artist from Marfa, Texas, Camp Bosworth, was a passenger in a car driven by his wife. It was afternoon. They say they were pulled over by a Texas state trooper.

Bosworth says he declined to give the trooper an ID.

“I said, ‘I don’t have to give you my ID. I’m not, ya’ know, I’ve done nothing wrong and I’m a passenger in this vehicle,'" he said.

He and his wife, Buck Johnston, were returning from a hospital where Bosworth was treated for an eye injury. Both say they were asked questions that offended them.

Johnston recalled a set of questions that she maintains the trooper asked her and her husband.

“‘Are you married? Why don’t you share the same name?’ And then she looked at my husband and she said, ‘You look familiar. Why do you look familiar? Are you hiding something?’ And he was like, 'No I’m not hiding anything. I’m injured and I’m wanting to go home,’”  Johnston said.

Bosworth said he's saddened by what he believes is the response by the majority of people pulled over in traffic stops.

He believes too many drivers and passengers are intimidated to the point they ignore their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

“You know, it’s my constitutional right not to be questioned and not to be ID'd without probable cause. It was my duty to say,’You know, hey, my constitutional rights are being violated here. Am I under investigation? No! Have I done anything wrong? No,’” he said.

Although Bosworth and Johnston say the trooper was adamant that they had been driving in a passing lane, she let them go.

But to focus on state troopers exclusively isn’t fair. Sheriffs and police sometimes use the same approach.

Karen Crenshaw, a 51-year-old who had just moved to West Texas, says she was stopped for not coming to a complete stop at the sole traffic light in rural Marfa, Texas.

“I’ve always had a great respect for law enforcement. And I’ve never felt nervous or upset when they pull me over,” she said.

Crenshaw says it was around 11 at night in late April and that two deputies gave her a written warning after a line of questioning that she believes wasn’t relevant.

“‘Where did you move here from? Do you have any illegal substances in the car? Have you ever been arrested? Or convicted of a felony?’ It just felt like overkill,'” Crenshaw recalled.

Constitutional law professor Meg Penrose at Texas A & M Law School says that kind of questioning — beyond the scope of the traffic offense — is itself a violation.

“The longer an officer holds you beyond a traffic stop when there is no probable cause to detain you, that officer has then actually then committed an unconstitutional seizure,”  Penrose said.

That's not the case at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints. Penrose says that agents have the legal right to determine immigration status. But you do not have to answer any questions. If an agent suspects you are in the United States illegally, you can be detained.

But refusing to answer questions does not legally constitute probable cause.

Things are different in Arizona. There the Department of Justice told the state in May that it won’t challenge Arizona’s so-called “show-me-your-papers” provision. That follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision sustaining the provision, while at the same time allowing for future challenges to it.

That provision is now under challenge in a class-action lawsuit. That means that in Arizona, officers can still stop you and ask you to show you’re in the country legally.


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