Articles Posted in Probable Cause

Earlier this month, an appeals court in Arizona considered whether a criminal defendant that had caused a deadly accident was indeed guilty of homicide and aggravated assault. Originally, the defendant was convicted after his truck collided with an ATV while he was under the influence. Despite the defendant’s argument on appeal that the trial court improperly limited his defense, the court of appeals affirmed the original guilty verdict.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, a woman was at the store one evening when she saw several teenage girls next to her; she recognized the girls as being the same ones that were on an ATV she had recently passed on the road. Before leaving the store, the woman saw the girls on the ATV drive out ahead of her. She also saw the defendant in this case, in his truck, driving out around the same time. Minutes later, she drove away herself, and immediately noticed debris on the road. She knew there had been an accident, and she called 911 to report that the ATV and the truck had collided.

Investigators and first respondents arrived at the scene, and they found two of the ATV riders had died while the third had suffered serious injuries. The defendant had run away from the accident, and the woman from the store told officers she thought he could have been involved.

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Too often, our clients come to us concerned because of charges resulting from a DUI stop. At the Law Office of James E. Novak, we know and understand how frightening it is to get pulled over, and that when alcohol is involved, the stakes are high. It is thus crucial to know your rights when you are on the road so that you can be prepared if and when you see the flashing blue lights behind you.

Probable Cause

The first thing to know is that if an officer pulls you over and asks you to perform a breathalyzer test, they must have probable cause to suspect that you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This means that officers cannot ask you to perform a sobriety test without some indication that you are not sober (the exception to this rule would be if the officers are conducting a DUI checkpoint and you were randomly selected to conduct a test as part of this checkpoint).

Anything that you say or do could be used against you in order for the officer to find probable cause to breathalyze you, test your urine, or test your blood. For example, if you are swerving on the road or if (after the traffic stop) your speech is impaired, the officer will likely have legal grounds to request that you take a sobriety test. In Arizona, it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol count (BAC) of .08% or higher, but officers can still arrest you if your BAC is lower than .08% and if their perception is that you are “impaired to the slightest degree.” For example, if your BAC is .07% but you are slurring your words when you speak to the officer, that officer can still arrest you under suspicion of a DUI.

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In a recent opinion from an Arizona court involving a DUI stop, the defendant’s request for evidence to be suppressed was denied. The defendant was found guilty of drug possession. He appealed, arguing the police officer’s search of his vehicle was illegal. The appellate court denied the appeal because it found that there were no legal issues with the officer’s DUI stop and that he did, in fact, have probable cause to search the defendant’s vehicle. Because of what the officer found during the DUI stop, the defendant was charged with much more serious crimes, including possession of drugs for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, a police officer in Arizona stopped a speeding vehicle driven by an acquaintance of the defendant. Once the officer stopped the car, he noticed the defendant sitting in the back seat with an alcohol container by his feet. The officer searched the vehicle and began a DUI investigation, all the while noticing that the defendant seemed “abnormally nervous.” Upon a thorough search, the officer discovered a 122-gram bag of methamphetamine in the glove box and a smaller bag in the console. He also found a glass pipe. Later, the defendant was charged with possession of dangerous drugs for sale, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of alcohol in a motor vehicle.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the drugs should be suppressed because the officer did not have permission to search his vehicle. He maintained that because the officer did not have probable cause to conduct the search, the incriminating evidence should not have been used at trial.

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In any Arizona DUI case, the defendant can file a motion to suppress certain evidence. When a motion to suppress is filed, it is the prosecution’s burden to prove that the evidence it is intending on using at trial was lawfully obtained. Often, Arizona motions to suppress focus on statements that were made prior to an arrest, a police officer’s observations of a motorist, or physical evidence that was obtained as a result of a traffic stop. An Arizona motion to suppress can also keep chemical test results or formal, recorded statements out of evidence.

An Arizona drunk driving charge must be established by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt. To meet this burden, the prosecution must present evidence proving each element of every crime that is charged against a defendant. In the case of an Arizona DUI case, this typically requires the prosecution prove:

  1. The defendant was driving a motor vehicle;

Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, citizens are protected from “unreasonable” searches and seizures. This includes requiring a driver to take a blood or breath test. Over the years, courts have described what constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure. In general, police must have a search warrant in order to show that a search is reasonable. However, police can conduct a search under certain limited circumstances without a warrant.

Clearly, police officers are not able to obtain a warrant when they witness someone commit a crime. Therefore, courts have determined that if a police officer has probable cause to believe that someone has broken the law, the officer can stop and arrest them.

Sometimes, however, police officers have a belief that a crime has been committed, but cannot be sure. In these situations, a police officer can stop a citizen, ask them questions, and conduct an investigation so long as they have reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. In order to justify this type of stop, an officer must be able to point to articulable facts supporting the officer’s belief that the person stopped was involved in criminal activity.

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Late last month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in an Arizona DUI case in which the court had to determine if the officer’s arrest of the defendant was supported by probable cause. The case gave the court the opportunity to discuss probable cause in the DUI context, and what the prosecution must show to establish that probable cause existed to arrest someone for DUI.

The Facts of the Case

Two men were taking their two-year-old cousin to the pharmacy by car. The driver parked the car, and each man grabbed one of the young child’s hands as they walked across the parking lot toward the entrance to the pharmacy. As they were walking, however, the young child broke free from the men and was struck by the defendant’s truck.

Police officers responded to the scene and immediately learned that the child had died from the collision. One officer approached the defendant, who was huddled over and clearly distraught. As the officer bent down to talk to the defendant, he claimed that the defendant had a “strong, pungent” odor of alcohol coming from her breath. When asked, the defendant responded that she had consumed two cans of beer earlier that day. The officer also noticed that the defendant’s eyes were watery and her face was flushed. However, the officer acknowledged that the defendant’s appearance may have been due to her distraught state and was not clearly evidence of intoxication. The officer then arrested the defendant.

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While getting pulled over may seem random – and indeed, sometimes it is – police officers are not permitted to pull motorists over for no reason. In fact, when a traffic stop is challenged, police officers must be able to articulate the reasons they relied upon for stopping a motorist. If a police officer does not have an adequate reason to stop a motorist, or impermissibly extends the length of a traffic stop in order to conduct an investigation unrelated to the reason for the stop, any evidence seized as a result of the stop must be suppressed.

Many police “fishing expeditions” begin with an officer stopping a motorist they believe is engaged in illegal activity for unjustifiable reasons. For example, a stop may be based on the way the person looks, or an aggressive – but not necessarily illegal – traffic maneuver. The same is true for a police officer’s reasons to search a car.

Of course, police are permitted to pull a motorist over for a traffic violation and may search a car when there is evidence of criminal activity readily observable inside the car. One of the most common reasons police officers use to justify both traffic stops and searches of a cars is a belief that the driver was intoxicated. However, evidence of intoxication is notoriously suspect because it is subjective and there is often a major lack of documentation.

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In a recent opinion, an Arizona state court discussed the “medical draw exception” to the general requirement that police obtain a search warrant before taking the blood of someone they suspect to be under the influence. The case offered the court the opportunity to clarify the narrow set of circumstances under which the exception applies.

The Facts of the Case

A witness happened upon a vehicle that had crashed into a business’ entry gate. The witness saw the defendant turn off the engine and then slump over the wheel. The witness called 911, and the fire department came to assist the defendant.

The fire department personnel found the defendant unconscious, with no visible trauma, behind the wheel. They removed the defendant and took him to the hospital, where several tests were conducted, and again, no visible trauma was noted. The defendant was hooked up to a ventilator while doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with him. Hospital staff took the defendant’s blood for medical purposes and securely stored it. A nurse noted that the defendant’s breath smelled of alcohol.

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If you're charged with drunk driving, it can have a major impact on your life and livelihood. That's why it's so important to speak with an experienced Phoenix DUI defense attorney. A skilled lawyer can examine the circumstances of your case and help ensure that all of your rights were observed.

Sometimes motorists are pulled over without sufficient cause. That could be ground for dropping charges or adjusting penalties. Let's examine how probable cause and reasonable suspicion figure into drunk driving cases.

Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion for DUI Stops

For expert criminal defense and legal counsel, the people of Phoenix know that they can rely on The Law Office of James Novak. Using our legal experience and years of know-how, we will help ensure fair hearings and that the legal system works fairly.

This commitment to fairness and proper legal process is extremely important when it comes to drunk driving cases and crafting strong DUI defense strategies. In a number of cases, the DUI charge comes down to questions of probable cause.

What Is Probable Cause?

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