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When Can A Police Officer Stop Me?

Often when a client comes in charged with a DUI, they ask about being stopped late at night and whether a police officer can “just stop me for no reason”.  In order for a police officer to pull someone over, all they need is a reasonable suspicion of a traffic infraction.  Normally late at night a person will be pulled over for something simple like failure to signal when turning, a burned out light, or an infraction of that nature.  Once a person is pulled over, if the officer has reason to believe the driver is under the influence, the stop can turn into a DUI investigation.

The ability of a police officer to detain a driver of a vehicle stems from the Supreme Court case commonly referred to as Terry. In Terry, the Court ruled that an officer may perform an investigative stop without probable cause. The Court articulated a new standard: “reasonable suspicion.” While this standard constituted a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, it was not unreasonable.

So When Can An Officer Stop Me On Suspicion Of DUI?

While both probable cause and reasonable suspicion standards require actual articulable facts, “reasonable suspicion” has a much lower factual benchmark, allowing officers to make Terry stops with (comparatively) very little evidence. This means that in a DUI stop, an officer only needs “reasonable suspicion” that you committed a traffic infraction. The officer doesn’t have to prove you were speeding, swerved within your lane, or failed to stop at a stop sign: he only needs to show it was reasonable for him to suspect that you did. So unfortunately, the Terry ruling opened the door for traffic stops to be used as methods by police officers to “pull over” cars on the road using virtually anything out of the ordinary (having a break light out, exceeding the speed limit by any amount, slightly crossing into another lane, etc).

Can I Defend An Improper Stop?

Possibly. An officer may just be flat wrong. For instance, some defenses could arise if he thought the speed limit was different or if there is video clearly showing you did not commit the infraction. In such an instance, you could move to have the evidence from your stop suppressed.

Search A Passenger In A DUI Stop?

The “stop and frisk” rule also applies in traffic stop situations: officers may search within the passenger’s “wingspan,” or within arm’s reach, for weapons if the officer has a reasonable suspicion the driver may be armed and dangerous. If any other contraband is found in the course of the search, it may be confiscated by the officer. Whether the passenger has a defense is very fact specific and what “reasonable articulated suspicion” the officer had.

So what does this all mean.  To avoid getting pulled over, first, you should make sure there is no equipment malfunctions with your car.  Next, make sure you follow all traffic rules to the T when driving late at night.  A large majority of police stops occur at night.  Whether you have been drinking or not, it is better to try to avoid a traffic stop altogether.

My recommendation, drive as careful as you can.

CCD Law