Reasonable Suspicion And Pretext--Their Impact On DUI Stops

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Reasonable Suspicion And Pretext--Their Impact On DUI Stops

31 March 2016
 Categories: Law, Articles

Police officers in today's society have a tough job. They are required to enforce the law but must also respect the rights of every citizen while they do so. To put this issue in perspective, imagine that someone in your neighborhood is planning to rob your home. You'd like them stopped before the crime happens, but you don't want police to accuse everyone on your block of plotting a crime. 

This means that police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime is happening before a person can be detained for any reason, even in the case of a DUI. That way, your rights are protected. However, the actual definition of reasonable suspicion is murky. Knowing a little bit about it--and how it governs police behavior before and during a traffic stop--can help you behave in a way that could help protect you from misconduct.

What Is Reasonable Suspicion In a DUI Stop?

Impaired motorists often make themselves obvious to everyone around them. They exhibit many signs of reduced functioning, including:

  • Swerving inside a lane
  • Driving too slow or too fast
  • Drifting across the center line
  • Inconsistent acceleration or braking

If you're seen driving in a way that is consistent with an impaired driver, the officer certainly has the right to stop you and investigate further. Often, this stop will lead to a request for field sobriety tests and possibly a breathalyzer. Depending on the law in your state, your options for refusal or failure of these tests will vary.

However, motorists are often detained and questioned when they have not displayed any signs of impaired driving. Some people point out that this practice of finding any pretext by which to detain a motorist contributes to racial profiling, but the practice is also used frequently to investigate a suspected DUI incident.

What Is a Pretext Stop?

Essentially, a pretext stop is when an officer believes that a significant crime--such as a DUI--is happening. However, they cannot articulate the reason for their suspicion in a way consistent with the requirements of having reasonable suspicion. To execute the stop, the officer then finds any minor traffic violation to detain you and begin investigating.

Often, police officers are given quite a bit of latitude in establishing the pretext for a traffic stop. That said, their power in these situations is not absolute. For example, if you've been pulled over for speeding and the officer notices that your speech is slurred, they can begin investigating your level of impairment. However, if no signs of impairment exist, they technically should not press that issue.

What Can You Do?

Only a legal expert can tell you exactly what your rights are in any specific situation. Unfortunately, this analysis almost always comes after the fact. You've already been detained, investigated, and charged by the time you contact your lawyer. That's why it is important to know how to best protect yourself in a general sense before you're subjected to a traffic stop.

The first thing you should do is to politely ask the officer for the reason behind the traffic stop. You have a right to know why you're being detained. In the event that the stop goes poorly, your representation will need to know what the reasonable suspicion or pretext was. Having the officer state it will reduce the chances that it changes later.

Second, limit your answers to short sentences. This isn't to mask any slurring or anything like that. People are naturally nervous in a traffic stop. Stuttering or tripping over your words could give the impression to an officer that you're impaired--even when you aren't. Brief answers help eliminate this possibility.

Finally, do not show anger or defensiveness. Many people become angry when they've been drinking, for a variety of reasons. Any combativeness on your part could be construed as a sign of intoxication--leading to further investigation and the establishment of reasonable suspicion.

While you'll certainly need the help of a legal expert if you've been unlawfully detained or charged, the best time to begin protecting yourself is during the stop itself. By understanding how reasonable suspicion and pretext impact your traffic stop, you can properly set the stage for your attorney to be an effective advocate for your rights.

Talk with a traffic law attorney or click here for more info.