Sorting through Fourth Amendment issues in DUI defense

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Law enforcement doesn't always do everything correctly. To protect a criminal defendant's rights, it is important to explore the legality of searches and seizures in defending a criminal case.

An important area that must be explored in reviewing possible defenses in a DUI case is whether police officers did their job correctly, especially in the area of searches and seizures. Prosecutors rely on the work of law enforcement to prove criminal charges, and one of the tasks of a criminal defense attorney is to protect a defendant's rights when law enforcement conducted an illegal search or seizure.

Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement officers are prohibited from engaging in unreasonable searches and seizures. Established case law is quite detailed with regard to the rules governing the reasonableness of searches and seizures. At each step of the process, these requirements must be met to ensure everything is done properly and legally.

Seizure requirements in DUI investigations

In the context of DUI investigations, it is well established that a "seizure" has not occurred unless the investigating officer makes use of physical force or a show of authority such that a reasonable person would feel they were not free to leave. Most motorists who are subjected to an ordinary traffic stop have been seized within the definition of the Fourth Amendment.

Law enforcement must have a proper basis to make a traffic stop, or else the stop is considered illegal. The bar isn't terribly high. At a minimum, an officer must have a reasonable suspicion supported by specific factors that a crime has occurred or is in progress. Officers don't necessarily need much to justify a stop-a minor traffic infraction would suffice, though they don't necessarily even need that.

Reasonable suspicion is somewhat of a slippery concept, but it is more than a mere hunch. Officers may not stop a vehicle on a whim. When determining whether a stop was supported by reasonable suspicion, courts look at the totality of the circumstances rather than any single factor. Courts have recognized that a mistaken understanding of law or fact does not invalidate a stop, provided the officer acted in good faith. Reasonable suspicion is a pretty low standard to meet, but still needs to be explored when analyzing a DUI case.

Searches connected to DUI investigations

Assuming an officer makes the traffic stop correctly and the detention was not excessive, the next question is whether any searches were correctly conducted. Generally, the Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before conducting a search, but there are certain well-established exceptions to this rule, which can be read about by searching the U.S. Courts website for Fourth Amendment cases. Police are permitted to conduct a routine pat-down of a driver and any passengers when the traffic stop is supported by reasonable suspicion. In order to conduct a more extensive search during a traffic stop, officers would either need to have a warrant or be working within an established exception to the warrant requirement.

Exceptions to the warrant requirement in the context of a traffic stop would be: searches to which proper consent is given; searches incident to a lawful arrest; cases where officers are dealing with "exigent circumstances" that make loss of evidence likely if a warrant is sought out; and searches involving items in plain view within a vehicle. Authority to search a vehicle does not mean officers have free reign, though, as there may be limitations in some cases on the areas or contents of a vehicle officers may search.

Consult an experienced attorney to protect your rights

For a motorist in the midst of a DUI investigation, it isn't always clear in the moment when law enforcement is exceeding the scope of its authority, and such matters often have to be sorted out afterward in the criminal process. Those who have been charged with DUI and feel their rights may have been violated should contact our firm to have their case evaluated and to determine the best course of action, including whether legal remedies may be available at trial.

Keywords: DUI, Fourth Amendment, criminal defense, searches and seizures

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