In order for a police officer to pull over a car, the officer must have “reasonable suspicion” to believe that a crime is occurring or has occurred. That could be because the driver is violating traffic laws by operating a car with a busted taillight. Or it could be that the car matches the description of one that was just used in a robbery. The point is that cops can’t just pull over a car for no reason, even if it turns out later that the occupants were indeed engaging in illegal activities. The West Virginia Supreme Court recently explained how the reasonable suspicion requirement applies in DUI cases.
Ms. Haynes was pulled over and later charged with DUI in Jefferson County in July 2011. Officer Hosby-Brown, who initiated the traffic stop, said he pulled Haynes over because she was weaving and had twice crossed the white median line on the road on which she was driving. Officer Custer later arrived at the scene and conducted a number of field sobriety tests. He said he smelled alcohol on Haynes’s breath and noticed that her eyes were bloodshot and her speech was slurred. Haynes admitted to having five or so drinks earlier in the night, according to Custer. A preliminary breath test showed that her blood alcohol content was 0.15 percent, nearly twice the legal limit (.08 percent). Haynes was arrested, and the DMV eventually revoked her driver’s license for one year.
At an administrative hearing appealing the decision, the prosecution presented two documents – an incident report and DUI information sheet – completed by Custer. In both documents, Custer indicated that Haynes was pulled over after her car was seen weaving and crossing the white line. Although Haynes objected to the documents, arguing that both gave the incorrect impression that it was Custer who pulled her over, an administrative hearing officer allowed them to be admitted as evidence.
The Office of Administrative Hearings nevertheless ruled that Haynes’s license shouldn’t be revoked. The OAH concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show that the cops had reasonable suspicion to pull Haynes over in the first place. It noted that Custer improperly implied that he was the one who pulled Haynes over, when in fact it was Hosby-Brown who made the traffic stop. Therefore, Custer didn’t have personal knowledge as to why Haynes was pulled over and couldn’t say whether her car had indeed been weaving. The only person with this information – Hosby-Brown – didn’t testify at trial. A circuit court later affirmed the decision on appeal.
The Supreme Court also affirmed the decision. “This Court has said that an arrest following a traffic stop can only be ‘lawful’ if an officer has an ‘articulable reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop’ of the person’s vehicle,” the Court explained. Since Custer didn’t see Haynes driving erratically, and Hosby-Brown didn’t testify at the administrative hearing, the Court said the prosecution failed to establish the necessary reasonable suspicion.
This might seem like a technicality, but reasonable suspicion is a hallmark of the criminal justice system, and the requirement that police officers have it before initiating a traffic stop is an important protection against law enforcement abuse. If you or a loved one has been charged with driving under the influence, the West Virginia DUI lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our firm has been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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