Reasonable Suspicion, DWIs, and Speeding

Raleigh DWI LawyerReasonable suspicion is the standard by which an officer can effect a stop of a vehicle. It is the lowest standard in the criminal system.

Reasonable suspicion requires that “[t]he stop… be based on specific and articulable facts, as well as the rational inferences from those facts, as viewed through the eyes of a reasonable, cautious officer, guided by [the officer’s] experience and training.” State v. Watkins, 337 N.C. 437, 441 (1994). Reasonable suspicion is a less rigorous standard than probable cause. It merely requires “minimal level of objective justification, something more than an ‘unparticularized suspicion or hunch[,]'” State v. Steen, 352 N.C. 227, 239 (2000).

In short, the State of North Carolina must clear this hurdle before it can offer evidence at trial collected after the stop was initiated.

Note that the reasonable suspicion standard applies to the stop of the vehicle. If the vehicle was stopped for speeding, the officer does not need to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the vehicle was speeding before stopping the car. The officer merely needs to have some reasonable suspicion that the car was speeding in order to the stop the vehicle.

In addition, North Carolina case law and statutes give a great deal of deference to a police officer’s visual estimation of the speed of a car in determining whether the estimate is more than a hunch. State v. Barnhill, 601 SE 2d 215 (2004) Indeed, under North Carolina law, an officer need not be admitted as an expert in order to estimate the speed of a vehicle. A layperson can estimate the speed of a car. State v. Wilson, 155 N.C.App. 89 (2002).

Obviously, given the case law, the State of North Carolina is frequently able to established reasonable suspicion. It doesn’t take much, and the officer’s opinion is usually sufficient.

But there are times when the state can’t establish reasonable suspicion. When that happens, the state is barred from admitting evidence from after the stop. The DWI charge is dismissed.

That’s because reasonable suspicion must be based on specific, articulable facts. It cannot be a hunch, or a guess.

In speeding cases that lead to Driving While Impaired charges, this occurs when the officer’s testimony is so weak that it’s clear the officer was relying on a hunch.

Frequently officers will testify that they estimated a speed based on their “training and experience.” But upon cross-examination by a Raleigh criminal lawyer, it becomes clear that the training and experience is illusory. The officer may for instance not know the distance over which the car traveled, or the time in which it traveled. The officer may, upon a vigorous cross-examination, be unable to testify about what particular experience or training he has in estimating speeds. Vague appeals to “training and experience” are not sufficient.

An excellent example of completely inadequate testimony regarding speed estimation is available in U.S. v. Sowards, 4th Cir. (2012), where the trooper could not tell how many feet were in a mile or even how many feet were in a yard, and provided no factual basis other than saying that he estimated the defendant was speeding.

The reason this is important is because reasonable suspicion, again, can never be a hunch. “Reasonable, articulable suspicion” is the standard. And “articulable” means that the officer must be able to articulate (or explain) how he reached the conclusion.

Conclusory statements such as “based on my training and experience, the defendant was speeding” are never enough. How did the officer reach that conclusion. Did he time the car over a certain distance? Did he hear squealing of the tires? Did he see smoke coming out from behind the car? Over what distance did he say the car was accelerating? How quickly did the car stop? Did the car jerk to a stop? Did the car spin out? How quickly did the car pass certain objects? Did the officer use radar?

These are all issues that can be raised by your Raleigh DWI Lawyer. If your lawyer can show that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion, you may be able to win your Raleigh DWI outright.

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.