Do You Know Why I Stopped You?

Posted by Ryan Russman | Jun 22, 2023 | 0 Comments

Reasonable Suspicion and the traffic stop

It's a question we all dread, in a situation to which none of us look forward.  Police officers are notorious for and have undergone hours of training in convincing people to incriminate themselves.  You often feel that you might just be able to talk yourself out of a ticket if you admit to something, but don't make it seem too bad.

But any admission in this situation will cost you.  Officers don't spend a lot of time pulling people over for no reason, though that does sometimes happen.  Rest assured that if you've been stopped, the officer knows exactly why he pulled you over.  Asking you and trying to see what he can get you to admit to, is just a game they've all learned in the academy.

And sometimes it works.  Pull a guy over for speeding and he admits to the cocaine in the glove compartment.  Stop a woman for running a red light and she confesses that there's a body in the trunk.  You never know what people are going to say.The point is that an officer cannot legally stop you for no reason.  He must have observed some sort of traffic violation.  In today's article I'm going to discuss with you the concept of ‘reasonable, articulable suspicion.'

As Americans, we sometimes take for granted, or give very little consideration to some of the freedoms we enjoy.  The only time we think about those freedoms is when there is talk to taking one or more of them away.  Accuse some politician of trying to limit our freedom of speech, freedom of religion any other rights, and you can do real damage to his or her political campaign.

Our country is based upon the rights of individuals, and every right that an individual is given necessarily limits the power of the government.  Freedom of the press, allows for private citizens (in theory) to act as watchdogs over government activities.  Freedom of speech assures that the government cannot silence citizens in their criticisms of the government.

The Constitution of the United States lays out many of the rights and freedoms that we enjoy, and a majority of those rights were written in response to conditions of oppression the colonists were suffering at the time of our nation's founding. One such right is the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  In the early days of our nation, while we were still under British rule, the homes and property of colonists were subject to searches and seizures by authorities at any time.

England was aware that many colonists opposed her rule and took measures to try to decrease the likelihood that rebellions would begin.  The English militia and customs authorities were given the power to enter into homes and invade property, searching and taking anything they'd like, if they were given information that the person whose home they were invading was engaged in any sort of movement against British rule and authority.  Often these ‘reports' were false and really needed nothing in the way of verification, allowing authorities to break into virtually anyone's property at any time and take anything they'd like.It was against this backdrop that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, outlining the precept that Americans would not be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Supreme Court of the United States has extended the protections of the Fourth Amendment and applied them to the area of traffic stops.  In the landmark Supreme Court Case, Terry vs. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27 (1968), SCOTUS held that a person can be stopped and briefly detained by a police officer based on a reasonable suspicion of involvement in a punishable crime. If the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and/or dangerous, the officer may perform a search of the person's outer garments for weapons.  Such a detention does not violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizure, though it must be brief.

This idea of ‘reasonable suspicion' is a powerful tool in the hands of those who would limit the unfettered power of law enforcement to intrude on the privacy of individuals.  Stopping a vehicle for no reason or for some impermissible reason is not an option.

In general, as applied to traffic stops and/or DWI cases, the reasonable or articulable suspicion doctrine requires that a police officer must have a valid reason for stopping your vehicle.  Law enforcement cannot stop motorists at random (except within limited circumstances), but must generally have to have observed some sort of traffic violation, or have a reasonable and articulable belief that a crime is being or has been committed by the motorist.

The power to search and seize lies at the very basis of law enforcement and is obviously necessary for officers to conduct any sort of investigation into crimes.  Without the ability to enter into a house being used as a meth lab and seize evidence, law enforcement would never be able to put a stop to crimes.  But the Fourth Amendment and all of its accompanying case law serve to limit that power in a very real sense.

Police officers must abide by the rules laid out and be prepared to defend their actions in court, testifying to why they stopped a vehicle or entered a home.  It is up to the judge to decide whether the reason testified to is a valid and compelling, one and most judges are not afraid to slap the hands of overreaching officers.

But judges walk a line between defending the freedoms of individuals and allowing law enforcement to conduct necessary investigations.  A hearing on reasonable suspicion results in either an affirmation of the officer's actions or suppression of all of the evidence obtained after the stop.

One of the most prolific areas of reasonable suspicion rulings comes from the world of DWI cases.  Officers are constantly on the prowl for potential DWIs, and oftentimes overstep the bounds placed upon them by stopping vehicles without proper reason.

Let's face it, officers want to stop every vehicle on the road after 11pm on Friday and Saturday nights.  People coming out of bars, nightclubs and restaurants have often been drinking, especially in the late hours, and if officers could stop every vehicle, they would be able to put a stop to DWIs.  But they would also stop hundreds of innocent people, destroying the right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Let's discuss an example. It's Friday night, Memorial Day weekend.  One of the local DWI officers has parked his car across the street from a local tavern.  Just before closing time, the officer watches a man exit the bar, stand in the parking lot for a few minutes and then walk to his car and get in.  The man pulls out of his space and starts driving down the road.

Now the officer has been sitting in that parking lot for over an hour and that car was there the whole time so he knows that this guy has been in the bar for awhile. He follows the man at a reasonable distance, trying not to alert the driver of his presence.  He watches him for any sign of a traffic violation, and while he doesn't actually observe anything illegal, he begins to notice that this guy is driving just a little TOO perfectly.  Moving at exactly the posted speed limit, slowing and stopping completely at stop signs, driving down the exact center of the lane…this seems to the officer, like a case of the ‘lady doth protest too much.'

After following the driver for more than 3 miles, he finally notices him make a slight swerving motion.  The driver doesn't leave his lane, or touch a lane divider, but there was definitely a swerve.

The officer activates his lights and sirens, and stops the driver. He conducts a DWI investigation, along with several other officers who weren't doing anything anyway and cites the driver for DWI after watching him stumble around, fail all of the field sobriety tests and throw up on himself.

A good DWI defense attorney will look at the facts of this case and realize that there is a severe reasonable suspicion issue.  He will file a motion, requesting that the judge look at the facts to determine whether the officer had a good reason for the stop.

A ‘motion' is a written request, asking the court to do something or rule on some issue, along with supporting facts and law. In this case the attorney would file a ‘Motion to Suppress' all of the evidence obtained after the officer made the illegal stop.

Suppression of all of the evidence after the stop in this case would ultimately be the same as dismissing the case, as no prosecutor in his right mind would proceed to trial with the facts that took place before the stop and try to prove a DWI.

After the motion is filed, the prosecuting agency would have a chance to respond and then the case would proceed to a hearing in front of the judge with the officer or officers testifying.

In this case, there is no doubt that the office will testify to his years of service with the DWI unit and all of his experience in rooting out DWIs.  He will note that driving too perfectly always means someone is guilty of something and then point to the swerve as a reason for the stop.

Is he right?

Is driving too perfectly a valid reason for him to stop a vehicle?  What about the swerve within the lane?Chances are good that in this case an experienced defense attorney would have a good shot at getting all of the evidence in this case suppressed.  Of course, that depends on the judge and the officer and the alignment of the planets, but this is a pretty good case for the defense.

The doctrine of articulable or reasonable suspicion is one of the most widely litigated concepts in criminal law.  Because it is involved in virtually every arrest, and because it is such a powerful weapon in the defense arsenal, motions to suppress for lack of reasonable suspicion are filed frequently.  The more a concept is litigated in the lower courts, the more of a chance there is for it to be appealed to higher courts, which means the more case law there is on that topic. Reasonable suspicion cases have been argued all the way to the Supreme Court. Because of the proliferation of cases in this area, there is also less likelihood of a ‘bright line' rule, meaning cases often have to be analyzed on a case by case basis. Another side effect is that you probably also need to hire an attorney to explain it.

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard that can be compared to probable cause, which is the level of evidence an officer needs to make an arrest.  Reasonable suspicion is a much lower standard than probable cause,  yet constitutes enough evidence to allow a stop, or a 'stop and frisk.' Articulable suspicion requires that an officer has some evidence that is able to be expressed to a judge that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a crime may have been committed.  There, isn't that clear?  Of course it isn't.

Here are some examples:

If an officer observes a woman running out of a Walmart with a dress on a hanger flopping in the wind behind her, and store personnel chasing her, all while getting a call that there is a shoplifting case in progress, he would have a good reason to believe that a crime is currently being committed and would have a good reason for stopping her…either in her car or while running down the street.In that case, not only is it reasonable for the officer to assume the woman is committing a crime, he can also point to articulable pieces of evidence that would lead one to that conclusion.

If an officer is driving down the street, however and sees a car with the back window rolled down and he cannot reasonably assume that the window is rolled down because the driver is smoking marijuana (Unless, of course there are clouds of marijuana smoke coming out of that window).

It has been held, by courts across the Nation and by the Supreme Court of the United States, that a random traffic stop is an unreasonable infringement upon these rights.  It is therefore the law that a police officer cannot stop a motorist unless he or she has a reasonable suspicion that the driver has been or is involved in some sort of criminal activity or if he has probable cause to believe that the driver has committed a traffic violation.

"Reasonable Suspicion" must be based on specific and articulable facts, i.e. not just a mere hunch or feeling on the part of the police officer, along with 'reasonable inferences from those facts.'  The facts that an officer testifies to in order to establish whether he had reasonable suspicion to make a stop, when being reviewed by a court, are looked at in the light of not what the officer believed or thought, but what a reasonable person in the same situation would believe.In other words, the actual beliefs of the officer who stopped you are irrelevant, as that officer may be paranoid, but what matters is what a reasonable person would have believed in those same circumstances. An officer can also stop you if he has probable cause to believe that you have committed a traffic violation.

Probable Cause is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion and is derived from what this particular officer saw and observed.  The result must be a likelihood that you have committed a traffic violation, such as speeding, or running a stop sign.

There is an exception to the premise that officers need reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, however.  That is in the case of the DWI roadblock or DWI checkpoint.

A police department may set up a DWI Checkpoint or DWI Roadblock under certain circumstances.  The United States Supreme Court allowed DWI checkpoints, carving out an exception to the Fourth Amendment in the cases of Michigan vs. Sitz and Ingersoll vs. Palmer. In some jurisdictions, leniency is given to police officers at DWI checkpoints, while in others, it is not.  Certain judges also view checkpoints as necessary in DWI detection and so give law enforcement considerable leeway in setting them up and conducting them how they see fit.

Should you find yourself facing a checkpoint, it's best to keep in mind the following points:

  • if an officer approaches you and asks for your license, proof of insurance and registration, you must provide those documents to him.
  • if he begins to question you, POLITELY tell him that you choose not to answer any questions as is your right under the United States Constitution.  You are not obligated in any way to provide him with answers to his questions, and doing so will only work against you both in his investigation and later in court.
  • if the officer asks to search your vehicle, tell him you do not consent to a search of your vehicle.  If he asks you to step out of the vehicle, lock it behind you and reiterate that you do not consent to a search of your vehicle.
  • if the officer searches your car anyway, do not resist.  Cooperate after noting your objections.
  • do not answer any additional questions once he begins his DWI investigation.  Ask to speak to an attorney.
  • if he asks you to perform field sobriety tests, politely decline.  The fact that you refused to take these tests may be used against you in court, but the results of an obviously flawed field sobriety test will not exist and are often far more damaging.
  • ask repeatedly and politely to speak to an attorney.
  • if you are placed under arrest, ask again to speak to an attorney, if you have not done so already.
  • if you have been placed under arrest, you are legally obligated to perform a breath, blood or urine test.  If you refuse your license may be suspended for an extended period of time.

Once you have been placed under arrest and have taken the blood, breath or urine test, the officer will generally cite and release you, provided you have someone willing to come pick you up…someone who hasn't been drinking!

Let me reiterate that!  Do not call someone else who has been out drinking.  The officers will test that person before they allow you to leave and you do not want to drag your friend out of bed in order to get him or her cited for DWI in the middle of the night!

As you can see, the point in a reasonable suspicion case isn't to stop the officer from arresting you. It is to get rid of all the evidence that the officer gathers after he or she stops you.  Suppression of all of the evidence will result in a dismissal of your entire case without ever having to appear in front of a jury!  This is obviously a very powerful tool in the hands of your attorney and needs to be explored after a thorough investigation of the facts and interviews of all of the witnesses.

The attorneys at Russman Law are experienced DWI defense attorneys and can spot a reasonable suspicion issue immediately.  If you or anyone you know have been subjected to a DWI stop and subsequent arrest, contact our offices today by using the Contact Form on our website to schedule a free consultation or to ask any DWI, criminal, divorce or personal injury questions you may have.  We will meet with you to discuss the facts of your case, outline any possible defenses and explain the procedure your case will follow through the court system.  Our experienced attorneys will do everything we can to help you avoid a conviction and/or to minimize any damage your case will do to your life, work, family or school.

About the Author

Ryan Russman

Attorney Ryan Russman has dedicated his career to fighting for the rights of New Hampshire citizens. His practice, based in Exeter (Rockingham County) New Hampshire, is limited to cases involving DWI and DUI, other motor vehicle and criminal cases, and many cases involving personal injury. He is, however, best known as one of New Hampshire's leading legal authorities on DWI.


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