DUI 103: What Happened at the Traffic Stop?
The traffic stop and/or arrest are crucial to the timeline of a DUI case. It is when the officer responds where the case possibly can completely unravel for the prosecution, if the circumstances are right.
The Fourth Amendment comes into play when a police officer stops a vehicle under reasonable suspicion that the motorist has or is in the process of committing a crime. The leading case is Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), where the Supreme Court held that a person stopped and detained by police under is protected by the Fourth Amendment, and that any evidence obtained by police through an illegal traffic stop cannot be admitted in court (the “exclusionary rule”). And in U.S. v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411 (1981), the Court clarified that an officer need only to have “reasonable suspicion” that a motorist had or was in the process of committing a crime to pull over the vehicle and detain the occupants. The consequences of these and other court rulings are that police departments have specific guidelines and training on how to conduct a legal traffic stop.
It is here where a good investigation can lead to information that can make or break a DUI defense. First, ask a series of questions about events leading up to the traffic stop. What were the viewing conditions for the officer– day or night, good or bad weather, obstructions from traffic or objects on or along the side of the road, items in the police car that could have blocked the view, etc.? What specific behavior did the officer see? Were the road markings and signs clear enough to see? If the officer did not have reasonable suspicion that you or your client did not commit a traffic infraction, than s/he did not have any cause to conduct a traffic stop.
After the officer stops the vehicle, there are more questions. Were the officer’s directions to the driver clear and understandable? Was the pat-down search performed properly, i.e., on the outside of clothing, without probing into pockets? Did the officer properly conduct the Standard Field Sobriety Tests? If the driver was unruly or otherwise uncooperative or belligerent to the officer, did s/he reasonably respond in kind? Did the officer properly read the driver his/her Miranda rights, and after that, did the police conduct a proper interrogation? And if the police seized anything from the vehicle, was there probable cause for a search incident to arrest, or did they get a warrant?
Any and every question about what happened at the traffic stop, no matter how insignificant they may seem, must be answered in order to give yourself or your client the best defense possible. And it goes a long way towards letting the judge and prosecution know that you did your homework.
- “Traffic Stops/Vehicle Searches” from Case Law 4 Cops
- The Law of Traffic Stops: The Stop, Detention, Investigation, and Arrest of a Motorist or Passenger by Alabama Law Enforcement Authority – State and Federal Cases, by Patrick Mahaney
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