Common Sense Prevails: Court of Appeals Rules DWI Stop Unconstitutional

Posted On August 28, 2012 by Daniel Koewler

At times, it seems as though law enforcement need no reason at all to stop a passing motorist and begin gathering evidence of criminal activity. For decades, the line dividing a constitutional stop from an unconstitutional one has steadily drifted towards "no specific reason at all| as our legislature passed more and more laws regulating traffic control to the point where it is almost impossible not to break some sort of traffic regulation with any regularity.

Which is why it was refreshing to see the Court of Appeals overturn the stop of a motorist based upon that person |flashing| their high-beams twice. In Sarber v. Comm'r of Pub. Safety, the only reason for stopping the driver was because they flashed their high-beams, twice, at a passing sheriff's deputy. The deputy stopped the driver and ultimately arrested him for DWI.

While the district court decided that the driver's flashing of his high beams broke the law and supported a traffic stop, the Court of Appeals disagreed. In a well-written opinion, the court looked at the plain language of the statute that supposedly penalizes the use of high beams when near oncoming traffic (typical work for a trained lawyer) but then went one extra step and applied common sense. The court noted that it is common practice for drivers to flash their high beams at other drivers to warn them of upcoming hazards, or notify them that their own high beams are still illuminated. By interjecting common sense into dense legal argument, the court cleanly decided that innocent behavior by drivers (briefly and quickly flashing their high-beams) cannot be the sole basis for a constitutional traffic stop.

While the evidence that a peace officer needs to observe before stopping a passing motorist is still very small, and while Minnesota law enforcement is one of the most well-trained groups of peace officers in the U.S., many DWI traffic stops are still performed unconstitutionally.