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What is reasonable suspicion to conduct a drunk driving stop?

On behalf of Cohn Lifland Pearlman Herrmann & Knopf LLP | Sep 8, 2020 |

A police officer cannot stop a vehicle for no reason at all. Instead, they need to have a reason to believe that a traffic violation or crime is occurring — or see one in progress. They can initiate a traffic stop once one of those standards is met. With a few exceptions, officers who pull a vehicle over for the suspicion of drunk driving use the standard of reasonable suspicion when they make the decision.

Many things can lead to a case meeting this standard, so understanding this concept and a few others that might come into the picture during the stop may help individuals who are trying to determine a suitable strategy for a drunk driving defense.

What is reasonable suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is a legal concept that means the officer saw something that led them to think that there was an offense or criminal act happening. In the case of drunk driving, the officer may have noticed something that’s associated with impaired drivers. These include things like:

  • Driving too fast or slow for conditions
  • Braking frequently without cause
  • Swerving from one lane to another
  • Turning illegally
  • Straddling the centerline
  • Stopping when there isn’t a reason to do so
  • Failing to obey traffic signals and signs

It is also possible for an officer to initiate the traffic stop for another reason, such as having expired license plates or a malfunctioning light. Traffic accidents and similar events might also lead to an officer trying to determine whether a driver is impaired.

What is probable cause?

When you’re pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, the officer is going to try to find out what is going on. This might include asking several questions. It’s a good time to remember that you don’t have to speak to officers except to provide them with your identifying information.

In addition to an interview, the officer might ask you to take a field sobriety test or chemical test. These are done to gauge your impairment level. The chemical test is a breath, blood, or urine test that produces a result to let the officer know your blood alcohol concentration. If this is over .08%, you’re considered legally impaired.

An officer needs probable cause, or evidence that you are drunk, to arrest you. A standardized field sobriety test or blood alcohol concentration level usually meets this standard.

How can these apply to a defense?

Prosecutors will use a variety of methods to try to prove that you’re guilty of a crime. In order to combat this, you need to introduce doubt into the minds of the jury. Calling the reason for the traffic stop into question or making the jury wonder whether the claim of probable cause was valid might be beneficial. The circumstances of your case determine what defense options are suitable, so be sure to discuss them with your attorney prior to deciding on one.