DUI traffic stops and what constitutes 'reasonable suspicion'

There are certain parts of Jefferson and Berkeley Counties that are hot spots for drunk-driving arrests. In Jefferson County, for instance, it is common for drivers to get pulled over after leaving the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.

The reasons for extra police presence are obvious. If a given area is known for high rates of drunk driving, law enforcement agencies will focus resources there. That being said, a police officer can’t simply pull you over because you happen to be driving in a certain area or leaving a venue like the Hollywood Casino. In order for a traffic stop to be legal, the officer must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and that’s what we’ll discuss in today’s post.

“Reasonable suspicion” is an often-misunderstood legal concept. In short, it basically means that the officer can pull you over if he observes driving or other behavior that would lead someone to reasonably suspect that criminal activity is taking place.

For instance, an officer may suspect driving under the influence if he observes certain driving behaviors, including:

  • Driving much faster or much slower than the posted speed limit
  • Weaving in and out of your lane
  • Braking frequently or stopping the vehicle at places other than intersections and traffic lights
  • Driving too close to the center line or driving on top of it
  • Striking or almost striking stationary objects such as parked cars

These driving behaviors alone do not prove drunk driving. But they usually do give an officer reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop.

An officer may also pull you over for reasons other than suspected drunk driving. If your vehicle is in disrepair in some way that is either illegal or dangerous (a burned-out headlight, for example), you may be pulled over. If the officer then smells alcohol on your breath or observes other potential evidence of DUI, he may initiate field sobriety tests.

If you were arrested for drunk driving and you believe that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to pull you over in the first place, you may be able to challenge the validity of the traffic stop. If the stop is ruled invalid, any evidence obtained during the stop could be thrown out.

As a final note, there is a difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” They are similar but not interchangeable. We’ll discuss this distinction in greater detail in our next post.

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