Search & Seizures: What to Know in DWI Cases

Getting stopped by the police is arguably one of the worst feelings in the world. The consequences of a traffic stop can be even worse if police believe that you are driving while intoxicated. First-time DWI offenses carry harsh penalties, including possible time behind bars and the loss of your license.

If you are facing DWI charges in Houston, it is important to get the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Houston DWI attorney specialist Doug Murphy will make sure that you exhaust every possible argument in your defense. Many times, attacking the validity of a traffic stop, search, or seizure can be enough to defeat DWI charges. Contact Houston DWI attorney Doug Murphy to schedule a free case evaluation today.

Traffic Stops Require Reasonable Suspicion

The Fourth Amendment to the United States offers a lot of protection to everyday citizens. Under this Amendment, you have the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. This right also extends to other interactions with police, including traffic stops. Specifically, police cannot require you to pull over and question you whenever they want. Rather, police must have some reason to believe that you've violated the law in some way.

In Texas, police must have “reasonable suspicion” that you've broken the law in order to pull you over. Reasonable suspicion does not require that police have verifiable proof that you've broken the law. At the same time, police cannot simply rely on a gut feeling or hunch. Instead, police must be able to articulate some valid and specific reason for requiring you to stop your vehicle. This reason does not have to be incredibly persuasive. It can be considered in conjunction with other relevant circumstances at the time.

Police may be able to establish reasonable suspicion if they:

  • Personally witness you breaking the law (e.g., speeding, weaving between lanes, illegal turns)
  • Watch you walk from a bar and get behind the wheel; or
  • Witness certain behavior that, under the circumstances, is suspicious.

For example, police may suspect that you are under the influence if you are driving your car steadily 10 MPH below the speed limit on a busy road. The officer has this suspicion because it is 11 PM, and you are driving away from a part of town that is heavily populated with bars. In this instance, the officer may have reasonable suspicion to believe that you've broken the law. If, on the other hand, the officer observed this same behavior on a weekday morning in a different part of town, the fact that you were driving well below the posted speed limit may not make them suspect DWI.

The bottom line is that police must be able to explain why they pulled you over. Remember, circumstances matter. If an officer cannot articulate a valid reason for the traffic stop, the resulting DWI arrest and criminal charges may be invalid. Attacking the stop itself can help you avoid the consequences of DWI.

Breath & Blood Tests During DWI Stops

Once you are stopped on suspicion of DWI, the police officer will assess the situation and determine if you appear to be intoxicated. Intoxication simply means that you are not able to drive your vehicle safely because you have consumed drugs or alcohol. Police do not necessarily have to prove that your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeds the legal limit to arrest you for DWI. Instead, they can infer that you are intoxicated from circumstantial evidence.

Factors that may indicate to police that you are intoxicated may include:

  • Inability to maintain eye contact and carry out a conversation
  • Slurred speech
  • Fatigue
  • The smell of alcohol on your breath or clothes
  • Combative demeanor, and/or
  • Failed field sobriety tests.

If police have reasonable suspicion to believe that you are intoxicated, they can ask you to consent to a breathalyzer or blood test. Until recently, you were legally obligated to comply with these requests. Now, however, you have the right to refuse chemical testing. However, it is important to note that a refusal can cause serious problems in the future if you are convicted.

Search Warrants to Bypass Your Refusal to Comply

If police firmly believe that you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they can force you to comply. However, they must obtain a search warrant before this happens. In order to get a search warrant, police must be able to show that they have probable cause to believe you have broken the law. This basically means that police have to show a judge that it is more likely true than not that you are intoxicated. Police may use any of the factors outlined above to support their request for a warrant. Once a warrant is obtained, you will be legally required to provide a sample of your blood for testing.

Vehicle Searches During DWI Stops

Can police search your car when you have been stopped on suspicion of DWI? It depends on what happens during the stop. Generally speaking, police cannot search a vehicle after a normal traffic stop. For example, police cannot order you out of the vehicle and tear through your things if you were stopped for running a stop sign. The same is true when you are stopped on suspicion of DWI.

Police can only search your vehicle after a traffic stop if:

  • You consent to the search
  • You have been placed under arrest,
  • Police believe that a search is necessary to thwart danger or a threat,
  • There is probable cause to support a warrantless search.

Search Subject to Consent

Police can search your vehicle if you provide consent. However, this consent must be the result of your own decision and willingness to comply with the officer's request. If an officer obtains consent through coercion or force, a search will not be valid.

Probable Cause Subject to Lawful Arrest

Your DWI arrest will automatically provide police with the ability to search your vehicle. Any evidence that police happen to find during this search - whether or not it is related to your DWI - can be used to support criminal charges.

Probable Cause to Conduct a Warrantless Search

The Fourth Amendment protects you from warrantless searches and seizures. However, there are certain exceptions to this general rule. Police can have the authority to perform a search if there is probable cause to believe that you have broken or will break the law. This is a much higher standard than the reasonable suspicion that is required to make the traffic stop.

Probable cause that could support a warrantless search of your vehicle could include:

  • The smell of alcohol or drugs coming from the vehicle
  • Bottles or cans clearly visible in the passenger compartment, or
  • Drug paraphernalia in or around the passengers.

Police do not have to rely on one particular piece of evidence to show that they had probable cause to search your vehicle. If there are multiple indicators that, when considered together, create probable cause, a search can be justified.

Searches to Ensure Safety

Police can search your vehicle without a warrant if they believe it is necessary for their immediate protection. This generally only applies if police can articulate that exigent circumstances existed and a search was necessary to prevent harm.

For example, during a stop police notice that you refuse to keep your hands visible on the steering wheel, as they've requested. When they notice a shiny black object wedged beneath your seat, they suspect that you have a weapon that you may decide to use. Police could perform a warrantless search of the vehicle to prevent a dangerous situation from unfolding.

Evidence Obtained From Illegal Searches and Seizures

Police are required to satisfy certain levels of proof before they can intrude into your life. In order to pull you over, police must have reasonable suspicion that you've broken the law. Before a DWI arrest, police must have probable cause that you are intoxicated. Prior to a search, police must get consent, arrest you, or have probable cause. If police do not meet these minimum requirements they have violated the law. As a result, the state's case against you may be doomed to fail.

Exclusionary Rule

Evidence obtained in violation of your Constitutional rights cannot be used against you in criminal proceedings. This applies to any evidence that is obtained as a result of an illegal stop, search, or seizure. If the illegal act led police to certain evidence, it must be excluded.

However, the state will not simply admit that your rights have been violated. They will argue that your rights were not violated and that police gathered evidence legally. In order to get tainted evidence thrown out of your Houston DWI case, you will need the help of an experienced attorney.

At the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C., our Houston DWI attorneys will always investigate the validity of any traffic stop, arrest, or search. If we determine that police violated your rights in any way, we will not hesitate to file a petition to suppress any evidence that stems from that violation. Your right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures must be protected. If this right has been infringed, we will find proof.

Without evidence to support its case, the state will be forced to reconsider any criminal charges it has filed. In some cases, the state may attempt to negotiate a plea. Other times, the state may be forced to drop the charges in their entirety. Our attorneys will fight to negotiate the best possible outcome in your criminal DWI case. If we do not believe that the state has sufficient evidence to prove that you've broken the law, we will not hesitate to fight your case in court.

Houston DWI Attorneys

If you have been arrested on suspicion of DWI in Houston you have the right to defend yourself. In some cases, fighting the validity of the traffic stop or vehicle search can be a powerful tool. If police performed an illegal search or seizure, the state cannot use any tainted evidence in its case against you. This can help you defeat criminal DWI charges.

Call the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. today at 713-229-8333 to schedule your free consultation. We will review the details of your stop and arrest, determine if your rights may have been violated, and help you understand your legal rights.

Contact Us Today

If you are facing DWI or other criminal charges in Texas, contact our office today to discuss your case, so we can begin working on your defense. Please provide only your personal email and cell phone number so that we can immediately and confidentially communicate with you.