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Weighing Strength of Reasonable Suspicion in D.C. DUI Stops

by | Aug 23, 2013

A woman who was arrested for drunk driving in Ohio last year has won an appeal to have the entire conviction tossed, after the court found the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to stop her in the first place.

The state had attempted to argue that the woman’s three-second tire drift onto the white dividing line on one occasion was basis enough upon which to stop her. The appellate court disagreed.

D.C. DUI lawyers know that reasonable suspicion is key for police to establish if they want their case to stick.

You may recall the recent uproar about New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” program, in which officers heavily targeted minorities in certain areas of the city and forced them to stop and be searched – absent reasonable suspicion. The 198-page federal district judge’s ruling that formally strikes down the controversial program cites a little-known but hugely important 1996 U.S. Supreme Court case, Whren v. U.S., which dealt with “vehicular stop-and-frisks” in the D.C. area.

In the mid-1990s, Metro police in D.C. had established a practice of patrolling neighborhoods identified as “high-drug” areas. The officers did this in unmarked vehicles. Drivers were stopped for minor traffic violations and ordered out of the vehicle as officers searched for anything of potential interest that might be visible.

In the Wren case, officers found two bags of crack cocaine in the hands of the driver. The defense argument against these stops was that there was a clear pretext to them. While officers insisted they were on routine patrol, their actual goal was to nab drug dealers and users. Even though the objective was reasonable, the stops were not because there was no articulable reason for officers to suspect that a vehicle with a busted headlight contained drugs.

However, the Supreme Court ruled that so long as the actions of the officers was objectively reasonable, the actual motives didn’t matter. Still, any racially selective enforcement was not allowed.

Both findings were cited in the New York stop-and-frisk case. While the officer’s actions may be objectively reasonable, their well-documented racially-selective enforcement is unconstitutional.

Race does not appear to have been an issue in the Ohio DUI case. However, the issue of reasonable suspicion takes center stage. Reasonable suspicion is the legal standard by which officers must reveal specific, articulable facts to back up the reason for a stop.

The trooper stated that he observed the vehicle touching the white barrier line once, briefly, before deciding to stop the driver. The court found that such action might be expected or, in some cases, perhaps even unavoidable in the course of routine driving.

The fact that the woman failed several field sobriety tests and smelled of alcohol was irrelevant when the reason for the stop was not, in the appellate court’s eyes, reasonable.

This ultimately resulted in the court dismissing the marked lanes violation and reckless driving charges, to which she had previously pleaded guilty. (The drunk driving charge had already been reduced to the reckless driving charge, as part of the plea deal.)

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC at 202-765-3175.