DWI STOPS

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Dallas Criminal Lawyer | Fort Worth Criminal Lawyer 

Traffic Violations

An officers’s observation of a traffic violation will always justify a temporary investigative detention.  Some of the more common examples include speeding, running a stop sign or traffic signal, failing to signal a lane change, or failing to dim lights.  A stop may be based on violations of vehicle registration laws or having an expired inspections sticker.  An equipment failure, such as a broken tail light or driving on a tireless metal wheel, can likewise be a violation of the law that supports a traffic stop.

Weaving Within the Lane

Many DWI cases begin with an officer seeing the driver weaving on the road.  Weaving as justification for a stop has generated a tremendous amount of litigation;  While no clear cut rule has emerged yet, a few guidelines can be outlined from the cases:

  • Weaving within a single lane is not as good a reason for a traffic stop as weaving into another lane.  The offense of failure to maintain a single lane in Transportation Code 545.060 has two elements:
  • Failing to drive within a single lane;
  • When it is unsafe to do so.
  • Little or not other traffic on the road makes it less likely that the officer can justify a stop based on unsafe driving.  If the driver’s failure to drive within a single marked lane is the sole basis for the traffic stop, the evidence must show that the driving was unsafe, considering all of the circumstances, in order to justify a detention.
  • Fluctuating speed plus weaving can equal reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop.
  • Speeding while weaving will produce a traffic offense for which the officer can pull the driver over.
  • Other vehicles took evasive action to avoid the vehicle
  • Some indication that the weaving was port of more erratic driving behavior or was unsafe to do so;
  • A description that the vehicle just pulled out of a bar around closing time.

Community Caretaking

An emerging justification for stops, particularly in the DWI context, is community care taking.  Beyond seeking out criminal, officers have an obligation to come to the aid of citizens who appear to be in distress.  In determination of when community care taking provides a basis for the stop, courts look at:

  • The nature and level of distress exhibited by the individual
  • the location of the individual
  • Whether the individual was alone and or had access to assistance independent of that offered by the officer; and
  • To what extend the individual, if not assisted, presented a danger to himself or others.
Those four factors, combined with the totality of the circumstances available to the officer, are the framework through which the question, “Would a reasonable person believe the individual is in need of help”? will be answered.  A community caretaking stop does not include the right to search incident to stop.  Whether an officer may search for weapons will depend on whether she has an independent reason to believe the suspect is armed.

Citizen Calls

After a citizen call, the patrol officer typically will be dispatched to the location.  Often, he will see not only a vehicle matching the description, but also the citizen’s car behind the suspect.  If the officer observes further suspicious driving independent of that reported to him by the dispatcher, the legal basis for the stop will be clear and difficult to challenge.  The legality of the stop is not as clear in those cases where the officer stops the vehicle with not independent basis beyond the bad driving reported by the citizen.  A reporting citizen is presumed to be credible.  The identified citizen has more credibility than the unidentified informant.  The test is whether the reporting citizen placed himself in a position where he could be held accountable for his intervention?  It does not matter that the officer did not actually know the identity of the citizen as long as the manner in which the citizen gave the information exposed her identity to discovery.

Warrants as a Basis

Officers regular run license plates of vehicles they observe in an effort to detect stolen vehicles or individuals who may have outstanding warrants.  Receiving confirmation of a warrant over a police broadcast will provide sufficient reasonable basis for any investigative stop.  The key will be what the broadcasting party relied upon.  An officer may arrive at the scene of an accident and sic over that the driver has outstanding warrants.  The warrant justifies an arrest, but during the course of the arrest, the officer may have the opportunity to observe behavior that also supports investigating the potential DWI.

Placing the Defendant Behind the Wheel

Wheeling the defendant is important for prosecutors as an evidentiary issue in proving the elements of driving or operating DWI case.  Simply seeing the defendant behind the wheel and the car in gear can be enough.  If the only reasonable inference is that a person drove the car, the prosecution does not have to have a witness say that he saw the defendant driving his car.  His confession may also be enough.  Courts have held that a defendant’s statement that he was the driver, together with a witness’ statement that he saw the defendant in the driver’s seat within minutes of the accident, was sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was the driver.  Officers should always check for seatbelt injuries and steering wheel injuries at the scene of the accident.  In serious accident cases, officers should consider blood fiber, and trace evidence from the car (or windshield, etc.) to corroborate driving facts.

Crash Scenes

An officer faces two potential problems in a crash scene: justifying the arrest and compiling enough evidence to place the defendant behind the wheel.  A crash scene is a suspicious place and the crash constitutes a breach of the peace, thereby supporting the warrantless arrests.

Roadblocks

In general, stopping a car at a checkpoint is a seizure.  A visible police presence where the traffic keeps moving until officers spot a violation is not a roadblock.  The reasonableness of a seizure at a vehicle checkpoint depends upon a balancing of:

  •  The gravity of the public concerns served but the checkpoint;
  •  The degree to which the checkpoint effectively addresses those concerns;
  • The severity of the intrusion upon individual liberty.

Sobriety Checkpoints

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, roadblocks established to identify intoxicated drivers are not inherently unreasonable.  In evaluating DWI roadblocks, courts must balance the public interest in the roadblock against the individual driver’s right to privacy in light of three factors:

  •  The state’s  interest in preventing accidents caused by intoxicated drivers;
  • The effectiveness of a DWI roadblock in preventing these accidents;
  • The level of intrusion on an individual’s right to privacy that is caused by the roadblock.

Once a defendant has been arrested, officers may obtain valuable information vital to a later prosecution both through a search incident to arrest and in impounding the defendant’s vehicle.  The defendant himself can be a good source of evidence, as can items found in the car.

Evidence on the Body

Blood and hair evidence can be used to police a defendant behind the shell or rebut a statement that he is a passenger.  Check for seat belt bruises, air bag abrasions on the face, injuries ties to specific vehicle damage, brake impressions on the sue of shoes, knee injuries on the driver, and wrist injuries from grasping the steering wheel.

Car Condition

If a defendant’s tires are damaged from hitting the curb, officers should take pictures or film the damage with the in car camera.  Look for windshield star cracks, fingerprints, blood splatter.  Check the settings of the seat and rearview mirror.  Do they indicate a small or large person was driving? Is it consistent with the defendant being the driver.

Inspection Stickers

If the defendant was involved in a wreck and he later tries to claim mechanical problems caused it, having information from the inspection sticker may provide a lead on when the car was last inspected and who performed the inspection.  This may help rebut any claim that the car was not in good working order at the time of the wreck.

Title of the Car

Sometimes a defendant will challenge the sufficiency of the state’s evidence that he was driving the car.  Evidence of vehicle registration papers found in the car can help cut off this contention.