The right of against unreasonable seizures in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is invoked frequently in the context of traffic stops, where officers temporarily “seize” a driver and his vehicle for questioning. It is established law, however, that an officer is only authorized to stop a vehicle where there the officer makes specific and articulable observations of the driver that lead him to reasonably suspect that the driver is operating unlawfully – such as while under the influence of alcohol. Where the officer arrests a driver under the pretense that the driver was operating under the influence without the officer being able to refer to specific articulable observations leading to his suspicion, the courts have ruled that the seizure or subsequent arrest is completely unlawful – regardless of whether the driver was in fact intoxicated.
The Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee’s recent decision in State v. Wild, is one such example. The court overturned a trial judge’s finding that an officer lawfully stopped a driver suspected of drunk driving because the State prosecutor was unable to establish that the officer truly had reasonable suspicion to seize the defendant.
The only evidence of suspicious activity that was offered by the prosecutor was the testimony of the police officer involved, along with one-minute’s worth of video footage from the officer’s cruiser camera. The officer explicitly testified that he did not remember any observations of the driver on the day of the incident, and deferred the trial court’s attention to the unclear camera footage and the officer’s statement that the defendant had crossed the lane multiple times, as the officer’s voice was recorded in the video. On this evidence alone, the trial court accepted the state’s argument that the defendant was in fact swerving or “straddling” across her lane after the court itself supplied more information as to the road design on its own accord, since the video footage was too unclear. Based on the video testimony and the trial judge’s own recollection of that road, the trial court found there to have been reasonable suspicion that the defendant was operating while under the influence. The Court of Appeals, however, completely disagreed.
The Court of Appeals was determined that the evidence provided by the prosecutor was clearly insufficient to establish probable cause. The officer had testified that he did not recollect the events, thereby leaving the unclear video footage to be the only evidence for the trial court’s determination. The fact that the trial judge based his final determination on information that he himself provided to supplement the video footage indicated to the Court of Appeals that the State had failed its burden of proving the officer had reasonable suspicion to seize the defendant. In other words, the State had clearly failed to demonstrate that the officer specifically articulate facts or observations that justify his suspicion of the defendant. The seizure was therefore unconstitutional, and the Court of Appeals dismissed the charges against the defendant.
Although this case was relatively simple, it still serves as an important example of the need for an experienced defense attorney representing you in your DUI case before the court. In most cases such as this, the state is able to easily establish reasonable suspicion because the standard of proof is so low. However, as this case demonstrates, there are times where the state may not be able to meet even such a low standard. In those rare times, the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights are held to have been violated, and the defendant is entitled to relief from the charges against him. Because even the simplest cases brought against a person could have subtle flaws that are fatal to the state’s case, it is absolutely critical that you find a diligent defense attorney to protect your rights before the court and to ensure that you are not held liable where the state does not meet its burden as required under law.