Defending a DWI Raleigh Case: Phase I: Vehicle in Motion

An officer’s first job is to watch the moving car to note any initial cues of a possible DWI violation. At this point, the officer must decide whether there is enough reason to stop the car.

If the officer has a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that the driver is impaired, he can stop the car. Or if the officer sees the driver committing a traffic or criminal violation – broken headlight, running a red light, speeding, etc. – the officer can stop the car to issue a citation for the offense.

At this point, the officer is not required to arrest the driver for a DWI based on this initial observation. Instead, the officer should try to gather all evidence that may suggest a DWI.

For instance, the officer may see the way the driver responds to the officer’s signal to stop, and note any other evidence of a DWl violation, including:

  • unusual driving actions
  • weaving within a lane,
  • moving at slower than normal speed,
  • evidence that the driver is drinking while driving.

Based on these initial observations of the moving car, the officer must decide whether there is “reasonable articulable suspicion” to stop the vehicle.

At this point the officer has three choices:

  • stop the vehicle,
  • continue to observe the vehicle,
  • or disregard the vehicle.

A top DWI lawyer will examine the officer’s behavior during Phase I carefully to figure out whether the police officer jumped to a conclusion without forming a “reasonable articulable suspicion.”

“Reasonable articulable suspicion” (RAS) or “reasonable suspicion” has a specific legal meaning. It is a standard that requires the officer to development enough specific facts so that a reasonable officer in the officer’s situation would have had suspicion to believe a crime was afoot.

An officer can’t simply say that he had a “hunch” that the driver was committing a DWI. The officer must give specific facts that caused him to have the suspicion that driver was committing a DWI.

Your defense lawyer should look at carefully at each reason cited by the officer to see whether it makes sense. And your lawyer should see whether there is other evidence that contradicts the officer’s “facts.”

For instance, if the officer followed the car for just a block before stopping the driver, the officer’s claim that he observed the car weaving in and out of traffic may not be credible. The officer may not have had time to watch the car to tell whether it was really weaving, or whether the driver was trying to avoid animal in the road.

In the United States and North Carolina, police officers cannot simply stop cars absent a valid, legal reason.

If the officer did not have reasonable suspicion before stopping the vehicle, the officer may have conducted an invalid stop.

If the officer conducted an invalid stop, a judge, hearing those facts, is likely to throw the DWI case because the officer violated the driver’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment and North Carolina’s Constitution.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.