What is Reasonable Suspicion?
In the United States, the 4th Amendment places limitations on how and when law enforcement can stop, search, and arrest people. Specifically, it requires that police have probable cause to perform a search or seizure of his or her property. In limited situations, however, the standard is lower, and law enforcement officers must only have a reasonable suspicion that someone violated the law to briefly detain them.
More than a Hunch
Reasonable suspicion was first addressed by the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio. Reasonable suspicion exists when law enforcement is aware of “specific articulable facts that, when combined with rational inferences from those facts, would lead him to reasonably suspect that a particular person has engaged or is (or soon will be) engaging in criminal activity.” It must be more than a mere hunch or unparticularized suspicion, and cannot be based on a person’s refusal to answer questions, refusal to consent to a search, or race or ethnicity.
What Factors are Determined as Reasonable Suspicion?
As mentioned above, the police may only detain you if they have reasonable suspicion that a crime is being or has been recently committed. In this context, “crime” includes minor traffic violations. Some factors that support a finding of reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop include:
Weaving, or “failing to maintain a lane,” often causes police to suspect that a driver is intoxicated. If you change lanes often or repeatedly drive on the lane markers, it will likely create reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop.
While driving a few miles above the speed limit is a common practice for many drivers, it is a violation of the law. As a result, if you are driving over the posted speed limit at all, an officer is justified in pulling you over – even if other factors such as the time of day (or night) or the fact that you were in an area with a high concentration of bars and restaurants also played a role in his or her decision to stop you.
While it may seem counterintuitive, driving below the posted speed limit could also be a justification for a traffic stop. A few miles per hour below the posted speed limit would not likely support a finding of reasonable suspicion, but driving significantly below the speed limit would likely warrant an investigation into the driver’s condition or state of mind.
Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road
If you are driving against the flow of traffic, it will justify a finding of reasonable suspicion in almost every conceivable situation. Not only is a traffic stop in this scenario a matter of public safety, but drivers who drive into oncoming traffic are also often highly intoxicated or in the midst of a medical emergency.
Running Stop Lights or Stop Signs
Many traffic violations occur at intersections, which is why you often see officers patrolling them. Rolling through a stop sign, running a red light, speeding through a yellow, or making an improper turn would all likely justify a finding of reasonable suspicion to support a traffic stop.
Many DWI stops are based on non-moving violations. Officers often look for issues like broken or malfunctioning vehicle lights, expired tags, or vehicle maintenance problems in order to justify a traffic stop and make contact with a driver.
Can Your DWI Charges Be Dismissed?
In many situations, law enforcement officers in Texas are expecting to encounter drunk drivers and are on a mission to make arrests. This can lead to traffic stops that are not based on reasonable suspicion, but instead, are based on an officer’s hunch that a driver might be intoxicated. A common situation involves a patrol officer pulling over a driver and claiming they violated a traffic law when, in reality, the driver did nothing to justify the traffic stop.
A corollary to the 4th Amendment’s prohibition on detention without reasonable suspicion is the exclusionary rule, which prevents evidence that is illegally seized from being used in court. As a result, if the police pulled you over without reasonable suspicion to do so, any evidence they gathered during the traffic stop could potentially be excluded from evidence. In other words, any observations made by the officers during the traffic stop, the results of field sobriety testing, or the results of a breathalyzer test could not be used in court against you. If the state does not have access to this evidence, it is likely that an attorney would be able to have the charges against you dismissed – if the prosecution doesn’t just drop the case on its own.
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