The U.S. Supreme Court recently dealt a blow to how defendants of some DWI cases can defend DWI charges. Our system of justice in the criminal defense world necessarily depends on effective limits as to what police, prosecutors, and courts can do in the course of a prosecution. This new ruling further limits the ever-eroding check and balance against state power.
The case in question involves a man who was pulled over by the police during a routine traffic stop. After some questioning and investigation the police found a large quantity of drugs in the man’s car, and he was arrested, charged, and convicted of trafficking. Essentially, nearly every DWI case follows this same pattern. First the police pull a driver over, then they investigate, then if warranted, they make an arrest.
Reasonable Suspicion and Justification
Before the police can pull someone over, they must have reasonable suspicion that the driver is breaking some law. The driver could be breaking a simple law like speeding or a more serious infraction like reckless driving, but before a police officer can stop and seize someone he or she must have a good reason to do so.
In this case the police officer’s reason for pulling the suspect over was for a broken tail light. Of course, that is a seemingly minor infraction, but even the most minor infraction will give the police justification for pulling someone over. The problem in this case is that the state law only requires a driver to have one operable tail light, not two, so the police officer was wrong when he pulled the man over and commenced an investigation.
Suppression of Evidence
In almost any criminal defense case, once a police officer goes beyond the bounds of what the law allows, the evidence uncovered should be suppressed at court and not admitted against a defendant. In this case, when the police officer wrongly pulled over a man for a broken tail light when state law only requires one, the drugs found as a result of that illegal stop should never have been admitted at trial.
The police officer and prosecution in this case argued that the police officer’s mistake was reasonable and that the evidence should be admitted because the police officer did not know he had broken the law. The defendant argued that ignorance of the law is no excuse and that the evidence should be suppressed. These were the questions the Supreme Court was tasked to resolve.
Supreme Court Rules
In its opinion, the Supreme Court sided with the prosecution and allowed the evidence to be admitted. This was in opposition to the decades of jurisprudence that essentially punishes the police when they break the law by acting in an unjustifiable manner (like stopping someone without proper justification). To justify its decision, the Supreme Court stated that the officer’s mistake was reasonable and therefore not a problem. This is now the state of the law for DWI defendants across the country.
This case will likely have adverse effects on DWI defendants in the future, but that does not mean that other effective defenses cease to exist. At the Wilder DWI Defense Firm our mission and goal is to provide our DWI clients with the best defense their case can get. If you have been charged with a DWI in the Dallas area, contact us.