Probable Cause & DUI in California
Santa Barbara DUI Defense Attorneys
Although "probable cause" is a common legal term, you may be unfamiliar with its actual meaning. Probable cause refers to necessary, factual evidence that a law enforcement officer must witness before he/she conducts a traffic stop, DUI investigation, or drunk driving arrest. Although probable cause is not limited to DUI cases, attorneys frequently employ it as a DUI defense strategy. Simply put, the law forbids police officers from making traffic stops and DUI arrests without a reason. This law is upheld by the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids unreasonable searches and seizures.
As Santa Barbara DUI defense attorneys, the legal team at Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP is well-versed in cases that involved probable cause and unlawful DUI arrests.
Without probable cause, law enforcement cannot perform any of the following legal procedures:
- A traffic stop
- A DUI investigation
- An arrest
Probable Cause & DUI Traffic Stops
Police officers cannot conduct a DUI traffic stop without reasonable suspicion. This means that officers cannot pull you over unless they believe that you committed a crime (such as DUI). Additionally, law enforcement must be able to articulate in court the evidence that led them to believe that you committed an unlawful act. The officer does not need to specifically recall evidence of DUI; any traffic violation is considered probable cause to pull you over. In fact, many DUI arrests occur after law enforcement stops a motorist for an unrelated offense, such as a red light violation. California sobriety checkpoints are the only exception to this rule.
Probable Cause & DUI Investigations
A DUI investigation occurs after law enforcement conducts a traffic stop. For example, an officer might notice an open contain of alcohol in a car after pulling the driver over for driving erratically. At this point, the officer would have probable cause to begin a DUI investigation. Without further evidence, the officer cannot legally investigate. As the DUI progresses through each stage – traffic stop, investigation, and arrest – the officer must uncover more and more articulable evidence that the driver is under the influence. Once an officer pulls you over on suspicion of drunk driving, he/she cannot begin an investigation without additional evidence of DUI.
What qualifies as a DUI investigation?
A DUI investigation involves questions, field sobriety tests, breathalyzer testing, etc. For example: an officer might begin a DUI investigation by asking you multiple questions about your alcohol intake, where you came from, and where you are driving. He/she could ask you to perform roadside sobriety tests or request that you submit to preliminary BAC testing.
If the police officer begins an investigation without reasonable suspicion of DUI, any evidence collected against you during the investigation could be inadmissible in court.
Probable Cause & DUI Arrests
Law enforcement may arrest a motorist after conducting a DUI investigation, but only if the arresting officer uncovers evidence of DUI to substantiate his/her suspicion. For example, the officer might notice the smell of alcohol on the driver's breath, conduct field sobriety testing, and discover that the driver exhibits further signs of intoxication, but the officer cannot legally make an arrest without further evidence. After the arrest, the law enforcement officer must be able to explain the exact evidence that led him/her to believe that the driver was intoxicated. An unfounded suspicion is not evidence to conduct an arrest. Any facts or evidence related to the traffic stop, investigation, or arrest should be recorded in a police report. If the officer cannot articulate the evidence related to your case, it may be inadmissible in court.
§ 1538.5 Suppression Hearings
You may file a motion to suppress DUI evidence in a § 1538.5 suppression hearing (commonly called a "probable cause hearing"). According to California law, any evidence may be "suppressed" if it was obtained after an unlawful traffic stop, investigation, or arrest. Evidence is "suppressed" when the court decides that it cannot be used against the defendant because it was obtained illegally by law enforcement. Suppression hearings are one of the most common forms of DUI defense in the California. Simply put, a suppression hearing allows your defense attorney to argue that your fourth amendment rights were violated at some point during the DUI process.
During a probable cause hearing, your lawyer may decide to combat some or all of the evidence collected against you. If law enforcement made an illegal traffic stop, any evidence following the officer's decision to pull you over could be suppressed. If an officer violated your rights by making an unlawful arrest, any evidence obtained before the arrest may be allowed in court. Every case is unique; it is up to your defense attorney to determine whether or not a suppression hearing is appropriate and which evidence should be suppressed. Although probable cause hearings are not always granted, attorneys can still use them as part of an effective DUI defense strategy.