3 Exceptions to Reasonable Suspicion for DUI Traffic Stops

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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Confused young man in the car stopped by policeman for a traffic stop

Last week’s blog discussed how an officer generally needs reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop in a DUI case. Without reasonable suspicion that the motorist committed a traffic offense, a police officer usually does not have a legal justification for a traffic stop. However, there are a few exceptions to the reasonable suspicion requirement such as an anonymous 911 call, community caretaker and sobriety checkpoints. In this blog, we will explore these particular exceptions and determine when a police officer can legally pull you over.

Anonymous 911 Call: Can a police officer pull me over based on an anonymous 911 call about a possible drunk driver?

Generally, no, a police officer cannot initiate his or her blue lights to pull your vehicle over based on an anonymous 911 call. An officer may rely on a 911 call to locate a vehicle on the roadway then proceed to pull the vehicle over only if the officer personally observes a traffic violation resulting in the officer having reasonable suspicion. In many cases, after receiving a 911 call, an officer may follow the motorist for a few miles waiting until they observe a failure to maintain lane, speeding or another traffic violation justifying the stop.

However, an officer may legally rely on an anonymous 911 call to approach a non-moving vehicle. For example, in a case called State v. McQueen, the Court held that an officer did not unlawfully seize a motorist when the officer failed to observe any traffic violations, but the motorist pulled into a gas station, stopped the vehicle, and exited his vehicle. At that point, the officer was lawfully allowed to approach the motorist to begin his traffic investigation. Even under this scenario, a skilled DUI lawyer must carefully examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the stop because it may still be unlawful based on the manner of the stop. The content of the 911 call will also be important for a DUI lawyer to review because what the anonymous 911 caller said may play an impact on the lawfulness of the stop or officer approaching the motorist without reasonable suspicion.

For example, our lawyers often evaluate an officer’s interaction with the motorist based on a case called State v. Wascher. In Wascher, the officer received an anonymous 911 call, observed the vehicle in question at a gas station pump, observed an individual walking from inside of the gas station to the vehicle in question and almost immediately asked the motorist for his license. In this circumstance, the officer likely had reason to approach the motorist to ask questions about the alleged erratic driving from the phone call, but the officer unlawfully asked the motorist for his license. Requesting the license caused the officer to need additional evidence about reasonable suspicion known as probable cause, the same standard required for an arrest. This is because the motorist was “seized” at the point where the officer took his license because the motorist could not lawfully end the conversation with the officer, get in his car and leave because it would be another offense to drive without his license. Numerous cases have been decided based on facts that seem small and unimportant but that a skilled DUI lawyer will recognize and argue that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause depending on the circumstances.

In sum, an officer can approach a non-moving vehicle based on an anonymous 911 call alone, but the officer cannot initiate blue lights to seize a moving vehicle or take the individual’s license without personally observing a traffic violation creating potentially reasonable suspicion or probable cause for a seizure.

Community Caretaker: When can an officer approach a motorist simply to check on their well-being?

“Community caretaker” is a term that was phrased to allow officers to approach an individual where no criminal activity is alleged simply to ensure their safety and the public’s safety. In short, police officers’ job is not simply to investigate crimes but also to ensure the public’s safety. As such, if an officer believes an individual is in distress or needs the officer’s assistance, the officer potentially has the right to do so despite not having reasonable suspicion or probable cause to initiate the encounter. Then, the officer may use the evidence they receive such as slurred speech, red, watery and bloodshot eyes, etc. to continue the community caretaker role into a investigatory role of criminal activity such as DUI.

Community caretaker often comes up in a DUI case where there is a passed-out individual in a parked vehicle. In some instances, such as where the individual is parked outside of a closed establishment or someone from the establishment calls 911 regarding an individual passed-out in their vehicle, the officer may have enough to lawfully approach the vehicle.

However, a motorist asleep or passed out in a non-moving and parked vehicle does not automatically give a police officer cause to approach the individual under the community caretaker doctrine. If the officer simply observes a person legally parked and sitting in their vehicle, the officer does not have the right to approach.

For an officer to approach a motorist based on community caretaking, there must be additional evidence that a community caretaking action was needed, such as the totality of the circumstances making it seem likely that the individual needed the officer’s assistance or there was a potential safety threat to the public, and the officer’s behavior and scope of the interaction must be reasonably tailored to the community caretaking need.

For example, in one case State v. Weston, an officer observed a minor motor vehicle accident, but the vehicles both drove away from the scene before the officer ever approached either occupant or operated his blue lights. Thereafter, the officer stopped the defendant to ensure the driver was not injured in the wreck then subsequently arrested the driver for DUI. However, because the motorists drove away suggesting they did not need the officer’s assistance, the stop was deemed unlawful, and the DUI ended up being dismissed.

Consequently, it is imperative once again for a skilled DUI lawyer who is familiar with the nuances of the community caretaker to review the stop to ensure the officer was truly and lawfully relying on his role as a community caretaker rather than unlawfully relying on the doctrine for an illegal stop of a motorist that did not require the officer’s assistance.

Sobriety Checkpoints: Are sobriety checkpoints lawful?

Yes, sobriety checkpoints are lawful, but only if they are conducted based on specific guidelines so each sobriety checkpoint’s validity must be evaluated on an individual basis. Although some sobriety checkpoints may be lawful, others may be unlawful.

The checkpoint is supposed to minimize the intrusiveness of the stop while enhancing public safety of curtailing drunk driving. To minimize the intrusiveness of the sobriety checkpoint, the officers must set guidelines for which vehicles they pull over such as whether it is every vehicle or every fifth vehicle and they must follow those guidelines, provide sufficient notice of the time and location of the traffic stop, and conduct the checkpoint in a safe manner where vehicles can pull over or where there are traffic cones, or other safety measures. A DUI lawyer should request certain documents detailing the guidelines for the stop in any case involving a sobriety checkpoint. A sobriety checkpoint may or may not be unlawful so it is necessary your lawyer evaluate every aspect of the sobriety checkpoint because it may cause your case to be subject to dismissal.

In sum, sobriety checkpoints are generally speaking “lawful”. However, the scope, guidelines and manner of the State conducting the sobriety checkpoint may cause your stop and arrest to potentially be dismissed or resolved favorably. Only a DUI lawyer that understands the law on sobriety checkpoints can prevent you from being convicted in a situation where you were unlawfully stopped during a sobriety checkpoint.

Contact An Experienced Tennessee DUI Attorney

If you have been arrested for an alleged DUI, it is important that you consult with a knowledgeable and experienced attorney who can evaluate the facts of your case. The attorneys at Barnes & Fersten understand both the law and procedure surrounding DUI stops and are prepared to fight for your rights. Our attorneys will investigate each aspect of your arrest, including whether there was reasonable suspicion or probable cause to determine if your stop was lawful. Contact us today for a free consultation to discuss the details of your case and learn more about how we may be able to help you.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.