Articles Posted in Traffic Stop

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion affirming a trial court’s decision to grant a defendant’s motion to suppress in an Arizona DUI case. The case required the court to review the state’s claim that reasonable suspicion supported the traffic stop. After viewing dashcam footage from the officer’s vehicle, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion. The appellate court affirmed.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s written opinion, the defendant was driving shortly after 2 a.m. when he was pulled over by a police officer, who claimed that the defendant did not come to a complete stop at a stop sign. During the stop, the officer observed evidence suggesting the defendant was intoxicated, and the defendant was ultimately arrested and charged with DUI.

In a pre-trial motion to suppress, the defendant showed the dashcam footage from the officer’s vehicle, arguing that he came to a complete stop and that there was no basis for the traffic stop. The prosecution argued that the dashcam footage was not a good representation of the officer’s perspective, and that, according to the officer, the defendant admitted he should have come to a complete stop sooner than he did. The defendant did not acknowledge making that statement, and it could not be heard on the video. The prosecution told the judge that the officer was available to testify, but he was not called by the prosecution.

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One of the most important roles of a judge or jury overseeing an Arizona DUI case is to weigh a witnesses’ credibility. Not every witness is completely accurate in their recollection of the events they testify about. It may be that a witnesses’ memory is imperfect, or that they are biased in some way. Bias does not always need to be intentional. In fact, it is common for witnesses to have an unconscious bias one way or another based on their beliefs or associations.

In a pre-trial motion, the judge will always be the one making the credibility assessment, as these motions are litigated in front of the judge. However, credibility issues can also arise at trial. In a recent appellate decision, the court affirmed the denial of a defendant’s motion to suppress after the trial court found the arresting police officer was credible despite seeming inconsistencies in his story.

According to the court’s opinion, an officer noticed that the defendant was driving with a license plate light that was not working. The officer pulled the defendant’s vehicle over and smelled alcohol coming from the defendant. The officer also noted that the defendant’s eyes were watery and bloodshot, and that his speech was slurred. The defendant was arrested for DUI, and then consented to a blood draw, which revealed his blood-alcohol content to be over the legal limit.

Law enforcement officers frequently focus their DUI enforcement efforts on long weekends and holidays under the assumption that people are more likely to drink and drive when they are out celebrating with friends and family. According to a recent news report, there were a total of 503 Arizona DUI arrests over Memorial Day weekend. Of those, 70 people were arrested for aggravated DUI and the remaining 433 were misdemeanor DUI arrests.

The article lists a few other interesting facts:

  • 109 motorists were arrested for extreme DUI, with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) in excess of .15

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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Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in an Arizona DUI case, discussing when a police officer has cause to pull a motorist over for swerving. Ultimately, the court concluded that the defendant’s driving did warrant the officer’s traffic stop, and thus affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress.

The Facts of the Case

A police officer first noticed the defendant’s vehicle because it was traveling 10-15 miles per hour below the posted speed limit. The officer began to follow the defendant, and observed the defendant’s vehicle cross the fog line and travel back and forth from one side of the lane to the other. The officer also witnessed the defendant stop short at two intersections. At all times, the defendant’s vehicle stayed within the lane of travel and maintained a speed between 10-15 miles per hour below the speed limit.

A few moments later, the defendant made a wide left-turn, again staying within his lane. However, after the turn, the officer testified that the defendant started to make “drastic moves . . . like an S,” crossing the fog line and driving into the painted median. The officer pulled the defendant over and eventually arrested him for DUI.

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The 4th of July is known as a holiday when people kick back and relax with friends and family. Over this holiday, it is inevitable that some people will have too much to drink. Knowing this fact, each year Arizona police set out to make a statement against driving under the influence by focusing their efforts on strictly enforcing the state’s DUI laws over the holiday break.

According to a recent news report, 1,726 law enforcement officers participated in a state-wide enforcement effort over the holiday. In total, police made over 11,000 traffic stops over July 3rd and 4th, and arrested nearly 300 people on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Of those, 62 of the arrests were for “extreme DUI” in which the driver’s blood-alcohol content is alleged to be greater than .15.

Police Were Looking for Reasons to Stop Drivers

Given that the state’s law enforcement officers were on high alert for drivers under the influence, it is likely that many of the traffic stops police made were motivated by “gut instincts” rather than articulable facts supporting a finding that the driver was under the influence. However, under Arizona law, police officers cannot pull over motorist for no reason or act on a hunch when determining which motorists to stop. Doing so violates the motorist’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

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A DUI stop can be an extremely stressful situation, especially if you have never been stopped previously. The team at the Law Office of James Novak knows this is true, which is why we think it's important that you understand your rights and options before an arrest is even made.

Our DUI defense attorneys have helped countless people facing drunk driving charges, and the following tips on traffic stops will help you understand what to do in case you are pulled over.

Nervousness Is Normal, But Stay Calm

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