Evidence gathered during a DUI traffic stop can sometimes be excluded from trial, if the officers have violated the search and seizure rules that stem from the Fourth Amendment.
It’s not the nightcap you ordered: You’ve had a couple drinks and, while driving home, you see the lights flash in the rear view and the next thing you know, you’re struggling to recite the alphabet backwards. This already-bad scenario gets a whole lot worse if you are charged with a DUI. Are there any defenses to a DUI charge? Yes, and some rise to the level of constitutional challenges.
Challenging the Stop
At times, the very stop itself is improper and the person pulled over can challenge not only the stop but also evidence gathered during the stop under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Illegal stop—no reasonable suspicion
Although a police officer does not need the same level of justification to stop a car as to conduct a search, he or she must have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot to pull a driver over. This reasonable suspicion may be based on the officer’s observations of how the driver is driving. If an officer sees a driver commit a moving infraction (such as speeding or blowing through a stop sign) or driving erratically, the officer has grounds to pull the car over.
But if a police officer pulls a car over even though he did not observe the driver commit a moving violation or drive erratically, the officer may lack sufficient facts to conclude that criminal activity was afoot, which is necessary to legally justify the stop. For example, a driver who has witnesses who observed that he was driving legally at the time of the stop may be able to successfully challenge the stop.
Illegal search—no probable cause
A search is the taking of evidence, including the taking of physical evidence such as that obtained by ordering a driver to submit to a breathalyzer.
Police must have even greater justification to conduct a search of either a person or his car than they need to pull him over. The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures requires that police have “probable cause” to support a belief that a crime has been committed in order to justify a search. “Probable cause” means that the police have reasonable grounds for believing the person to be searched has committed a crime based on facts logically supporting that belief. Read on to learn how a search without probable cause can help you in a DUI case.
The Exclusionary Rule
The Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures applies to all criminal cases, DUIs included. Courts enforce this right through the “exclusionary rule” after defendants have filed motions to suppress evidence. Courts will suppress (or “exclude”) evidence that officers have obtained through illegal searches and seizures. In the DUI context, this means, for example, that a court will toss out evidence of a DUI if the arresting officer had no reason to detain the motorist in the first place. It will do the same if the officer had a reason for the initial detention, but no basis for continuing it beyond brief questioning.
If a cop has pulled over a driver on a whim—not because of a traffic infraction, a different offense, or suspicious driving—there isn’t a lawful basis for the stop. In order to discourage this kind of Fourth Amendment violation, a court will rule that all evidence flowing from the illegal stop is inadmissible, thereby eviscerating the prosecution’s case. (For more information on the theory behind and application of the exclusionary rule, see Understanding Search and Seizure Law.)
See a Lawyer
A DUI is a serious charge and can lead to the loss of one’s driver’s license, jail time, fines, and other significant ramifications. If you have been charged with a DUI, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area to talk about the legality of the stop, evidence suppression, and any other defenses or options you have. And, of course, if you drink, don’t drive. It’s not worth the risk to your freedom, your life, and the lives of other people on the road.