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Legality of a DWI Stop – More than Curiosity is Required

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Often the best defense starts with whether the DWI stop of the vehicle was legal. The Fourth Amendment guarantees that we are free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This demands that the police first have a legal basis to even stop the vehicle before investigating a possible DWI. Unfortunately, this constitutional guarantee is often trampled on by police when investigating (sometimes “fishing” for) a DWI.

So what’s required in order for the cops to pull you over? Reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity. In non-legalese, this simply means the cops need to have a basis to believe the driver committed a traffic infraction or there is a noticeable equipment violation (e.g. the light for the license plate is out). Even the most mundane, simple traffic violation can justify a stop.

Clearly, this is not a high threshold for the cops to satisfy. But, you’d be shocked at the number of times this is abused. This is often the case when cops are fishing and relying upon mere hunches or acting out of curiosity. This is commonly seen when patrolling a known area for DWIs – like around an area with many bars.

A recent Court of Appeals case exemplifies how critical it is to hold the cops accountable to this minimal threshold of reasonable and articulable suspicion. In Schlicher v. Comm’r of Public Safety, a cop stopped a vehicle after it turned onto a narrow, dirt road that led to a commercial site that was closed at the time. The cop testified that the driving conduct gave him no concern and he confirmed that he was motivated by his curiosity when following the vehicle and ultimately stopping it. The Court clearly found that this is not a legal basis to justify the stop. As a result, the drivers license revocation was rescinded, meaning the defendant prevents an alcohol-related loss of license from permanently going on his driving record and he will not have to serve the lengthy revocation period associated with it.

In our experience, it is not uncommon for stops to be capricious and the result of a fishing expedition. We often joke that it seems cops work backwards with DWIs – find the DWI defendant and then later figure out how to justify the stop and probable cause.

This is why it is critical to get a DWI attorney to fight for you. Constitutional rights are at stake and we know how to make sure they are honored.



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