As a criminal defense attorney, I receive my fair share of driving while under the influence (DUI) cases.
Surprising to some, DUI cases can be extremely complicated, especially to novice defense attorneys. DUI cases involve a variety of evidence, including observations of the accused’s behavior (i.e. red, watery, bloodshot eyes), field sobriety exercise results, statements, chemical testing, etc.
There is good news for individuals arrested for DUI: an experienced criminal defense attorney can seek to suppress evidence procured in the case, typically by filing a “stop motion”.
A “stop motion” is a Motion to Suppress filed by a defense attorney requesting the Court to invalid a stop as a result of an illegal stop and seizure. Once the stop is invalided, any observations of the police after the stop are suppressed and shall not be considered by Judge or Jury.
Even statements admitting guilt or high breath test results can be “thrown out” if the stop is invalidated.
As every fact pattern is different, stop motions are commonly filed in DUI cases. Most cases hinge on the smallest of details; the defense attorney’s familiarly with the law and their ability to cross examine the police officer(s) are crucial. If the defense attorney can undermine the credibility of the police officer(s), the Court will be more inclined to grant the Motion to Suppress.
Without evidence of the police officer(s) observations after the stop, the State cannot proceed forward with their prosecution.
What does the Court consider when deciding whether to grant a stop motion?
When a police officer effectuates his/her flashing lights and stops a vehicle, the driver is (almost always considered) detained (i.e. not free to move). During a stop motion, the Court will consider the following, “Did the officer engage in conduct that a reasonable person would find controlling or directive?” If so, the driver is detained. If not, the police officer is engaging in a consensual encounter.
The distinction is important as a police officer can only (temporarily) detain a driver if, “the police officer has articulable facts sufficient to create a reasonable suspicion based on the police officer’s knowledge and experience that the person is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a crime.”
If the Court finds that the police officer detained an individual without reasonable suspicion, the stop (and any evidence obtained subsequent to the stop) would be invalidated. For example, a police officer cannot pull over a red Corvette simply on a “hunch” that individuals who drive red Corvettes like to commit crimes – the police officer needs articulable facts sufficient to create a reasonable suspicion.
Predominately, a police officer will stop a driver based on their belief that they have probable cause that the driver committed a traffic violation.
Such common traffic violations are speeding, failure to maintain a single lane, running a red light or stop sign, etc. Upon stopping the driver, the police officer then may (at that point) develop reasonable suspicion that the driver is driving while under the influence (i.e. smell an odor of alcohol, slow movements).
As a result, in order for a stop for a crime or traffic infraction to be proper, the police must have a reasonable suspicion that the driver is engaged in criminal activity OR probable cause to believe a traffic infraction has been committed.
The police can also stop a vehicle based on observations indicating that there is a problem with the driver or the vehicle (i.e. the driver is sick, injured, or tired, or there is vehicle defect (i.e. flat tire)).
Motions to Suppress (and especially stop motions) routinely rise and fall on whether the Court finds the police officers to be credible or incredible.
Recently, the Courts have been hesitant to suppress evidence in instances where the police officer claimed he/she pulled over the defendant’s vehicle under the “emergency aid exception” (i.e. concerns that the defendant needed aid or assistance). Seemingly, the Courts have been more inclined, however, to grant stop motions in situations where a police officer stopped a vehicle for an alleged “defective equipment violation” (see Hilton v. State, 961 So.2d 284 (Fla. 2007) discussing cracked windshields) and Doctor v. State, 596 So.2d 442 (Fla. 1992 discussing cracked rear reflector).
The key factor is whether the police officer had a reasonable belief that the infraction (i.e. crack) caused an unsafe hazard and endangered person or property.
Here are some examples of how a Court’s ruling can hinge on the smallest of details:
The Court granted the defendant’s Motion to Suppress in Hurd v. State, 958 So.2d 600 (Fla. 4th DCA, 2007) (moving from far left-hand lane without warning over a solid white line into right lane without turn signal, speeding up and then driving slowly, was insufficient for stop where no other vehicles were endangered), but denied the defendant’s Motion to Suppress in Roberts v. State, 732 So.2d 1127 (Fla. 4th DCA, 1999) (continuous weaving, even within the same lane of travel… presented an objective basis for suspecting that the driver was under the influence, even though no other vehicle or person was affected.)
In Crooks v. State , 710 So.2d 1041 (Fla. 2nd DCA, 1998), the Court granted the defendant’s Motion to Suppress, as a stop for an improper lane change (i.e. failure to maintain a single lane) was improper where the lane change did not create a safety problem to any other traffic (i.e. no other vehicles were affected). Conversely, in State v. Y.Q.R. 50 So. 3d 751 (Fla. 2nd DCA, 2010), the Court denied to grant the defendant’s Motion to Suppress where the driver made a left turn from the center lane whether or not the action affected other traffic.
In that case the police officer cited a different violation than failure to maintain a single lane. That statute did not require that other traffic be affected before a violation occurs.
The bottom line, DUIs laws are complicated and constantly changing.
If you or you family are arrested for DUI, you should retain an experienced criminal defense attorney familiar with DUIs to file a Motion to Suppress to effectively undermine the police officer(s) credibility.