Why Was I Pulled Over?

Posted by Doug Murphy | Jun 15, 2021 | 0 Comments

A Common Scenario

Here's a common DWI arrest scenario that often leaves the suspect driver baffled. The officer pulls the driver's vehicle over and engages the driver with question after question, without ever telling the suspect why they were pulled over. The officer plies the driver with questions like “May I see your license and registration?” and “Where are you coming from and where are you headed?” and “Are you in a hurry right now?” without giving much hint, if any, as to what the driver might have done wrong to end up on the side of the road.

The next thing the driver knows, the driver faces a DWI charge. “What,” the driver wonders, “did I do wrong that led the officer to stop my vehicle?” The officer may not have said a word to the driver at the scene, nor given any reason why the officer would have suspected the driver to be intoxicated. What gives?

Reasonable Suspicion to Stop

The driver in the above common scenario is perfectly within the their rights to wonder: why the stop? The Constitution's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit state and local police from unreasonable searches and seizures. To respect those rights, Supreme Court case law holds that police must ordinarily have reasonable suspicion of a crime to make a traffic stop. A court may generally prohibit the prosecution's use of DWI evidence gathered from a stop made without reasonable suspicion that a law had been broken

What drivers want and expect to hear when an officer pulls them over is what reasonable suspicion the officer had, giving the officer legal grounds for the stop. That expectation isn't necessarily because we all know Supreme Court case law. Instead, we share an American's expectation that police will leave us alone unless they have a good reason, like crime prevention or public safety, not to do so. We know we have rights. We thus expect the officer to tell us that we were speeding, weaving dangerously in and out of traffic, ignoring stop signs, or lacking a headlight or taillight, justifying the stop. Yet they often don't, for reasons discussed below.

Probable Cause to Arrest and Search

The rules (a) requiring reasonable suspicion to stop and (b) that evidence gained from a stop made without reasonable suspicion is inadmissible generally mean: bad stop, driver wins. A DWI defendant who retains Texas DWI Specialist attorney Doug Murphy to suppress inadmissible evidence gained from an illegal stop will generally defeat the DWI charge because constitutional rights require probable cause to arrest and search. Probable cause is reasonably trustworthy evidence that the officer observes from which the officer may reasonably believe that the suspect has committed a DWI crime. In short, without reasonable suspicion to stop, the officer will not have lawful grounds on which to claim probable cause to arrest and search.

Here's how it generally works. Ordinarily, an officer sees the driver's vehicle wandering across the centerline, or otherwise violating a traffic law, giving the officer reasonable suspicion to stop. The officer then observes the driver's slurred words or glassy eyes, or smells alcohol on the driver's breath, giving the officer probable cause to arrest for sobriety tests. Bingo: lawfully obtained evidence to charge DWI and convict. If, though, the officer didn't observe any wandering of the vehicle or other suspicion of a DWI and thus had no reasonable suspicion to stop, then the officer's evidence of slurred words, glassy eyes, and alcohol breath all get thrown out. Driver wins, not because the driver is lucky but instead to preserve foundational rights.

Why Officers Talk at the Scene

Why, though, do some officers share their reasonable suspicions (their reasons why they stopped the driver) at the scene while other officers do not share reasons? Arresting officers generally share information with a DWI suspect only when doing so is in the officer's immediate interest. Their duty is to the public and its safety and security. They have no special concern for protecting the legal rights or personal interests of persons suspected of DWI crimes. They have the exact opposite role and interest, to arrest with credible evidence those committing DWI crimes. Some officers may instead be thoughtful of and helpful to the DWI suspect, even friendly and chatty. Most will not. Most will take the opposite approach of speaking only what is in their investigational role and prosecutorial interest.

Officers thus often share some of what the officer observed that looked like a DWI crime, only to get the arrested person to confess to the crime. For instance, you might hear something like, “Any reason why your vehicle was crossing the double-yellow line?” That statement would suggest to you why the officer stopped you. You must, though, remember your right to remain silent while also remembering that the officer is fishing for information, not necessarily concerned with telling you the true cause for the stop.

Officers may also talk at the scene not just to gain the DWI suspect's confession or admission to incriminating evidence but for the suspect's cooperation. You might, for instance, hear the officer say something like, “I pulled you over because your headlight is out in the dark, and you'll need to park your vehicle and call for a ride.” You'd then have an idea why the stop, although the officer may simultaneously be listening to your speech and evaluating your smell and appearance for intoxication signs.

Why Officers Don't Talk at the Scene

Arresting officers, though, don't always need a DWI suspect's confession or cooperation. They may have all the evidence they need for a DWI arrest and charge without the suspect's confession or the suspect's cooperation to secure a driver's license, vehicle registration, or the vehicle itself for search and seizure. Those officers may not say anything at all about the cause for the stop and DWI arrest because doing so will not advance their interests. They may also just not wish to engage and potentially aggravate an already confused, frightened, or angry DWI suspect.

Revealing information at arrest may also adversely affect the officer's investigation and the officer's interest in providing evidence supporting a DWI prosecution. Disclosing arrest information may cause the DWI suspect to realize the nature of the potential charge, changing the suspect's behavior accordingly, perhaps to minimize the smell of alcohol, steady the gaze, clear the speech, and avoid other observable signs of intoxication. Disclosing arrest information could also enable the DWI suspect to secure, preserve, and produce exonerating scene evidence that the arresting officer would, under the circumstances, rather avoid. When deciding what to share with the stopped driver, officers will thus play strategic games of cat and mouse.

What Officers Must Tell You

Officers must tell a driver stopped for a suspected DWI some information at the scene. For instance, the officer must generally tell you whether you are free to go. Law does not generally require a suspect to stand idly by to voluntarily chat with investigating officers. On the contrary, you may generally remain silent and even walk or drive away, unless the officer has commanded your stop for investigation or commenced with your arrest on probable cause. If you have any question whether an officer is detaining you for a DWI investigation, then ask whether you are free to go. The officer should answer so that you can act accordingly.

Officers should also answer your reasonable requests for your health and safety or the health and safety of another vehicle occupant. If you are faint and need to sit or take medicine, then the officer making your stop should tell you whether you may do so. If you need to comfort or care for an alarmed child in your vehicle, then the officer should tell you that you may do so.

Once the officer concludes the on-the-scene investigation following your lawful stop, the officer must also ordinarily inform you if the officer is pursuing a DWI charge. If so, then the officer must retain your driver's license, giving you a pink document that notifies you of your license's suspension but permits you to drive for up to forty days while requesting an Administrative License Revocation hearing. The pink sheet explains those rights in greater detail. You'll ordinarily know at the scene, in other words, if you're being charged with a DWI crime.

Discovering the Alleged Reason for the Stop

The pink sheet DWI paperwork, though, won't give the arrested driver the details about what the officer observed to give the officer reasonable suspicion of the alleged DWI crime. Booking procedure (when the officer transports the DWI defendant to the station where officers record identifying information, take the defendant's photograph and fingerprints, and hold the defendant for arraignment,) will also generally not reveal reasons for the stop, unless the arresting officer relaxes the guard enough to tell the defendant.

The arresting officer will, however, promptly prepare an incident report detailing any reasonable suspicion for the stop. The officer's dash-cam video may also capture, or may contradict, the officer's report. Prosecutors may or may not include those details or other significant detail in their charging documents, including the criminal complaint and other court filings. The DWI defendant's court arraignment shortly after arrest may also not reveal those details. A preliminary examination, where grounds for the stop would surely come out, takes place only for felony DWIs like intoxication manslaughter. These procedures may thus leave the DWI defendant largely or wholly in the dark as to the officer's specific, detailed observations allegedly giving grounds for the stop.

Confirming the Alleged Reason for the Stop

No matter what a DWI defendant learns along the way about the alleged grounds for the stop, the DWI defendant should be investigating and confirming or contradicting those grounds. The surest way to learn of the alleged and true reasons for a DWI stop and arrest is to retain 2021 Houston DWI Lawyer of the Year Doug Murphy. When grounds for the stop are in any doubt, attorney Murphy works to obtain the arresting officer's incident report, the criminal complaint and other charging documents, police vehicle's dash-cam video, and any other available records and evidence. This information and evidence should reflect the details that the arresting officer alleges as grounds for the stop.

If these materials do not reflect the grounds, then the police and prosecution have evidentiary and credibility problems. Attorney Murphy also engages prosecutors in plea bargain and pretrial discussions. During the course of these sometimes-frank communications, prosecutors may admit that the arresting officer lacks articulable grounds for the stop or may disclose unrecorded details of their case for reasonable suspicion supporting a lawful stop. While an officer may play cat-and-mouse games with a DWI suspect at the scene, prosecutors have fewer reasons to do so with defense counsel who they know can challenge the stop on constitutional grounds.

Challenging the Alleged Reason for the Stop

If attorney Murphy's investigation does not produce clear and strong grounds for the stop, then attorney Murphy can prepare, file, and argue a motion to suppress all evidence gained from the stop. That's one way to aggressively and successfully defend a DWI charge, on constitutional grounds showing an illegal stop. A motion to suppress requires that the prosecution disclose credible evidence giving lawful grounds for the stop. The arresting officer typically must attest under oath to those grounds, on penalty of perjury. A motion to suppress is the surest way to get the most reliable evidence of why police made a DWI traffic stop.

Retain Expert Texas DWI Defense Representation

Don't play cat and mouse with police and prosecutors over the reasons for your DWI stop or the DWI stop of a loved one. Instead, promptly retain Board Certified DWI Specialist Doug Murphy who has the premier standing as a national DWI expert to timely assert your constitutional rights, preserving all available DWI defenses. Rely on 2021 Houston DWI Lawyer of the Year Doug Murphy to beat a Texas DWI charge. Attorney Murphy is one of only two Texas lawyers holding both DWI Board Certification and Criminal Law Certification. Contact Doug Murphy Law Firm online or at (713) 229-8333 to discuss your case today.

About the Author

Doug Murphy

Doug Murphy is one of only two Texas lawyers Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and also in DWI Defense by the National College for DUI Defense, accredited by the American Bar Association and the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.


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