It is an age-old question that nearly all those interested in the criminal justice system will ask: When can the police pull a person over? You may or may not know that the police do not have unfettered authority to pull anyone over for any reason. In fact, there is a long and storied body of law decided by local, state, and national judges defining when the police can detain someone.
The rules regulating police interaction with the public are simple. Before a citizen can be pulled over on the road, a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion that the driver either broke or is in the process of breaking some law. In most cases this means traffic violations like speeding, not using a turn signal, and others.
Mistakes of Fact and Law
One question that arises, particularly in DWI cases, is what happens when the police are wrong about why they pulled a driver over. This was exactly the scenario that played itself out on the the highest stage of legal developments – the Supreme Court. In Heien v. North Carolina the High Court was presented with an interesting circumstance of a mistake of law, and what resulted shocked the legal world.
In that case, a driver in North Carolina was rolling down the road without violating any traffic laws whatsoever. But he was pulled over by a police officer for having one of his taillights not working properly. As happens so many times, especially with DWI cases, the police officer went beyond the pretext of pulling the man over and began an investigation of much more than a broken taillight.
During the stop, the police officer noticed a suspicious package in the car. As it turned out, the package was full of illegal drugs, and the driver now had more to worry about than a broken taillight. What ensued was a legal battle that ended up in the Supreme Court in 2014. The reason? Because as it turns out, in the state of North Carolina a car only has to have one taillight to be legal on the road, and this man’s car had one functioning tail light. So the police officer made a mistake and had no reason to pull him over.
In the minds of many legal experts this meant that the investigation and resulting discovery of illegal drugs was invalid. But that is not the conclusion that the Supreme Court came to in their 8-1 ruling. They ruled that the police officer’s mistake of law was reasonable, and therefore the stop was justified under the law. This ruling now gives law enforcement and prosecutors yet another tool to discover and prosecute crimes.
You can see why this ruling has such a large effect on DWI cases. The police do not now need to correct on whether the reason they stop a driver is based on a reasonable suspicion that someone broke the law. They simply need to have a reasonable interpretation of the law and suspect that it was broken to make a stop. Countless DWIs are investigated and prosecuted based on this theory, and it is why you need the right team defending you.
If you are charged with DWI, contact us. At The Wilder DWI Defense Firm our DWI defense team will give you a free evaluation of your case, and help you understand what your rights are. But more importantly, we will tirelessly defend your rights. Contact us today.
(image courtesy of ChengH)