Drug trafficking and the art of probable cause

A couple of big drug busts over the last few days in Minnesota provides a lesson in the art of probable cause.

Under the law, police cannot pull someone over just because they suspect you’re doing something illegal. They need a reason — probable cause. It’s pretty easy for them to come up with that reason.

Take the arrest of two Carlton County women in southwestern Minnesota, for example. They were caught with 50 pounds of marijuana on their way back home from Las Vegas on Friday, the Duluth News Tribune reports.

But they weren’t stopped on suspicion of being traffickers.

They were stopped for the ticky-tack traffic violations that are everyday life on the highway — in this case not having headlights on when it was snowing. They had their daytime running lights on. That’s probable cause to pull them over.

When a Windom, Minn., officer observed they were following too close to a truck, and changed lanes without signalling, that sealed the deal. Then he smelled marijuana and that was that.

A day later, a Minnesota state trooper used the art of probable cause to arrest two Montana men who were transporting 900 pounds of marijuana near Brandon, Minn., KARE 11 says.

The trooper figured something was up because the pair was towing a camper, which is not illegal in Minnesota, just unusual in the winter time.

But you can’t stop someone for towing a camper.

It was a crack in the windshield that gave him probable cause. You can’t drive with a cracked windshield. And when the vehicle’s tires touched the fog line, that provided additional reason.

A subsequent — and now legal — search of the camper found it full of trash bags of marijuana with a street value of over $4 million.

The Fourth Amendment, now, perhaps, the weakest member of the Bill of Rights, protects people from being stopped without probable cause. But every time the Legislature passes another motor vehicle law, it makes getting probable cause easier to find.

Philando Castile was stopped for a broken tail light and ended up dead. Seimone Augustus had air freshener.

There’s nothing wrong with nabbing drug traffickers through probable cause, of course. But the cases highlight how easy it is to obtain it when an officer is looking for a reason to pull someone over who doesn’t look quite right. Sometimes the police are right; sometimes they’re not.

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