West Virginia DUI cases often come down not to the question of whether a driver was intoxicated at the time of an arrest, but whether the arresting police officer had good reason to pull the car over in the first place. As the state Supreme Court recently explained, police must have “reasonable suspicion” in order to stop a vehicle.
Mr. Littleton was pulled over while driving one evening in August 2010, after a state trooper said he noticed Littleton’s car weaving and swerving and observed that one of the vehicle’s registration lights wasn’t properly illuminated. The trooper later said he noticed a strong smell of alcohol on Littleton, who told the trooper that he’d had a few drinks at the Moose Lodge nearby. Littleton failed three field sobriety tests, according to the trooper, and his blood alcohol content registered above the legal limit of 0.08% on two breathalyzer tests. The DMV later ordered that Littleton’s driver’s license be revoked for 90 days and that he be banned from operating a commercial vehicle for one year.
The Office of Administrative Hearings reversed the decision, however, based largely on the testimony of Ms. Painter, who was a passenger in Littleton’s car on the night in question. Painter said that Littleton had been operating his vehicle in a safe fashion and wasn’t weaving or swerving at the time he was pulled over. Although the trooper told Littleton and Painter that the registration light was dim, Painter said she checked the light and it was properly illuminated.
The OAH credited Painter’s version of the events after finding that the trooper “could not recall with any specificity during cross-examination the circumstances or events which occurred that resulted in the traffic stop.” It further concluded that the trooper had no reason to pull over the vehicle and declined to consider any evidence gathered after the stop, including the results of the field sobriety and breathalyzer tests. A circuit court later affirmed the decision.
Reversing the decision on further appeal, the Supreme Court said the trooper was legally justified in stopping Littleton’s car. “The law is well-settled that police officers may stop a vehicle to investigate if they have an articulable reasonable suspicion that the vehicle is subject to seizure or a person in the vehicle has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime,” the Court explained.
Although the OAH said the trooper couldn’t remember what led up to the stop, the Court said it was understandable that the trooper couldn’t precisely recall where he was when he noticed the car because he patrolled the same stretch of road for six hours that night. He also recalled with specificity that the vehicle had been weaving and swerving – with the tires touching the line marker – and that the registration light was dimmed. “The trooper’s inability to recall unremarkable and insignificant details of that night’s patrol does not mean that he was lying about the basis for the traffic stop nor does it warrant a rejection of his testimony,” the Court said.
If you or a loved one has been charged with driving under the influence, the West Virginia DUI defense 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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