A police officer needs reasonable suspicion of unlawful conduct to stop a motorist. The types of driving transgressions that result in an officer’s reasonable suspicion of a DUI violation vary greatly. There are several reasons for this variation: reasonable minds can disagree on the question of what is reasonable suspicion; the facts differ in every case; and states have different statutes making up what constitute traffic violations.
The first question to examine in determining the lawfulness of a motor vehicle stop is whether or not the police officer personally observed some violation of law.
Did the officer personally observe a traffic violation?
Although there are many incidents when an officer does not have to observe a violation of law in order to stop a motorist, the bulk of drunk driving stops are initiated because the officer claimed a traffic violation occurred in the officer’s presence.
The United States Supreme Court has found that it is not reasonable to stop a car for the sole purpose of performing a license and registration check. In that case, the officer said he stopped the car because, in his own words, “I saw the car in the area and wasn’t answering any complaints, so I decided to pull them off.” The Court decided that this was not reasonable and set forth the following standard to stop a car:
Accordingly, we hold that except in those situations in which there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. [Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663 (1979).]
The key phrase is whether or not the officer had an “articulable and reasonable suspicion” of unlawful activity. The officer need not have probable cause to stop a motorist. The probable cause standard is the standard used to determine the propriety of an arrest—not a detention.
The articulable and reasonable suspicion standard is an admittedly amorphous guidepost for evaluating the lawfulness of a motor vehicle stop. DUI lawyers and police have the same problem of trying to determine what is “reasonable suspicion” of unlawful conduct. The main difference between a police officer’s determination and a DUI lawyer’s is that the officer has less time in the field to make the appropriate assessment than the attorney has in the confines of his or her office.
While it is fair to recognize that an officer in the field must make a quick determination based on the facts at hand, a misapplication of those facts does not make a DUI stop lawful. In these cases, a good DUI lawyer will acknowledge to the court the sincere efforts by the police officer, but note that the law must still be followed. Good faith in a warrant-less detention is not an exception to the requirement that the officer have objectively reasonable suspicion of unlawful conduct prior to making an enforcement stop.
If you feel an officer did not have probable suspicion to stop you or have questions about your situation and what you can do to protect yourself, contact an experienced lawyer at George McCranie Law Firm. To schedule a free initial consultation, call us today at (912) 209-9401.