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DUI traffic stops and the burden of ‘reasonable suspicion’

We recently wrote about the increase in DUI enforcement on and around major holidays. Across Wisconsin, law enforcement agencies beef up patrols at this time of year to catch drunk drivers and get them off the state’s roads and highways.

That being said, police cannot pull you over simply because it’s the holidays. In order for a traffic stop to be lawful, the officer needs to have a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime may have been committed. This gives him the authority to stop a driver temporarily and conduct a limited investigation. But what does “reasonable suspicion” mean in practical terms?

When it comes to traffic stops that end in a DUI arrest, reasonable suspicion is often based on driving behavior that the officer observed. This could include illegal behaviors like speeding, failing to signal a turn, running a red light or striking another vehicle. But it could also include legal but abnormal driving like swerving, driving much slower than the speed limit, frequent braking or stopping on parts of the road where no stop light or stop sign is present.

Because these types of observed driving behaviors could reasonably be signs of impairment, they would most often meet the standard of reasonable suspicion. It should be noted, however, that an officer may also initiate a traffic stop even if drunk driving is not originally suspected.

Perhaps the most common scenario in this regard is being pulled over for a mechanical problem with the vehicle that is either an illegal violation or creates a safety hazard. This could be a burned-out headlight, a missing brake light or any number of other issues.

In most cases, the officer will tell you why he pulled you over. If he fails to give a reason, even upon request, you might have been the victim of an unlawful stop. When that happens, you may be able to file a motion to suppress any evidence obtained during the stop, including the results of field sobriety and breathalyzer tests.

If you are facing charges for drunk driving or any other crime, it is important to seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.

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