Questions of probable cause in DUI stops can be tricky

We have previously written that drunk driving charges can often be contested based on the legitimacy of the traffic stop. A police officer needs to have probable cause in order to pull over a suspect. Police don’t necessarily need to suspect drunk driving right away, but the stop cannot be based solely on a “hunch” or “gut feeling.” Usually, the officer needs to observe erratic driving, an illegal maneuver or a problem with the vehicle that violates safety codes.

But what constitutes “probable cause” for a traffic stop in West Virginia? Or anywhere for that matter? For better and worse, the answer is often highly context-specific. In some cases, courts given identical information could potentially reach opposite conclusions.

As just one example, consider two DUI cases that recently went before appellate courts in Wisconsin. Both cases involved Jeeps of identical make and color, arrests that occurred at nearly the same time at night, and officers who initiated traffic stops based on observations that a cigarette butt had been thrown out the window.

So is littering a legitimate reason to pull over a driver? Unfortunately, the two defendants were given two different answers. In the first case, the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence based on the supposed illegitimacy of the traffic stop. Both the trial judge and the appellate court agreed with him. Courts held that the officer did not have probable cause to make the stop, since littering is neither a traffic violation nor a crime.

In the second case – which had very similar details – the trial judge and the appellate court ruled in favor of police. An appellate judge wrote: “The officer’s reasonable belief that someone in the [defendant’s] vehicle had littered provided probable cause for the stop.”

Because of these seemingly contradictory rulings, both cases could potentially head to the State Supreme Court to be reconciled. The point for West Virginia readers, however, is this: Don’t assume that your DUI case is won or lost before speaking with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Because probable cause and other factors are often context-specific, your attorney will work to help you present the facts of your case in the most favorable way possible.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Stopped for littering, busted for drunken driving? In Wisconsin, it depends,” Bruce Vielmetti, Oct. 13, 2014

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