Police Officers' Stop of Driver Must Be Constitutional

Posted On November 23, 2009 by Charles Ramsay

Our constitution protects us against unreasonable police seizures. As a result, in a DWI case, the police officer's reason for the stop must be constitutional. Otherwise, everything the officer learns as a result of the stop must be thrown out and cannot be used against my client.

Earlier this year my client was stopped by police officer and arrested for DWI. My client ("Mark|) was driving on a divided highway, with two lanes of traffic in each direction. He came to an intersection which was also a divided highway with two lanes of traffic in each direction.

A deputy sheriff saw Mark turn left from the leftmost turn lane into the right driving lane of the intersecting roadway. Upon seeing this, the deputy turned on his emergency lights and stopped Mark's vehicle for what he believed to be an illegal turn. The officer eventually arrested Mark for DWI.

What if the officer was mistaken about the law? Is the stop still legal? If not, what happens?

Both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution guarantee the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects" against "unreasonable searches and seizures." Any evidence obtained subsequent to the illegal seizure must be suppressed.

To justify a warrantless investigative seizure, a police officer must be able to articulate some objective basis that the individual seized has been, is presently, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity. This reasonable, articulable suspicion must be present at the moment a person is seized, and cannot be determined after the fact. Simple good faith on part of officer is not enough. Thus, an officer who makes a traffic stop must have a |particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular persons stopped of criminal activity.| While a stop may be based on the suspect's violation of traffic laws, there must be proof that the stop was not the product of mere whim, caprice, or idle curiosity.

When looking at an officer's basis for stopping a motorist, the focus of the court is on whether there is any, |objective basis for the belief that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity.| This means that, |an officer's mistaken interpretation of a statute may not form the particularized and objective basis for suspecting criminal activity necessary to justify a traffic stop.

In this case Mark violated no traffic laws, whatsoever. There was no evidence that he was violating any speeding laws, nor traveling dangerously slow. All equipment on his vehicle was perfectly functioning. He did not begin driving evasively the moment he saw the police, rapidly pull of the road, or perform a sudden U-Turn.

Instead, the deputy believed that Mark violated a traffic law by turning left from one lane into another. The only applicable Minnesota statute to this type of conduct would appear to be Minn. Stat. §169.19, subd. 1(b), which provides:

|Approach for a left turn on other than one-way roadways shall be made in that portion of the right half of the roadway nearest the centerline thereof, and after entering the intersection the left turn shall be made so as to leave the intersection to the right of the centerline of the roadway being entered. Whenever practicable the left turn shall be made in that portion of the intersection to the left of the center of the intersection.| (Emphasis added).

Mark's driving could not have been violated the statute, as the statute merely advises drivers to perform left turns in such a manner â?? it is not a requirement. This conclusion comes from a plain and honest reading of the statute, and numerous district court judges have agreed, holding that a left turn that does not comply with the advisory language of the law and therefore cannot be the basis for a lawful traffic stop.

Regardless of the deputy's honest belief that Mark's left turn was illegal, the truth is that it was not. The judge will rule the stop unconstitutional and as a result, throw out the entire case.

Police officers give many reasons to stop a vehicle. Not all of them are constitutional and should be challenged. If successful, the driver should prevail in any DWI case. Some of the unconstitutional reasons may be:

1. Certain turn signal violations;

2. Anonymous tipsters or callers;

3. equipment violations;

4. suspicious vehicles;

5. license plate type;

6. weaving within a lane;

7. headlights;

8. time of day;

9. closed businesses;

10. Welfare checks and many, many others.

If you have been arrested for DWI, we can help. Call us immediately for a free consultation.

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