When is a DUI stop legal? Minnesota’s top court decides.

A case at the Supreme Court of Minnesota questions whether a drunk driving stop was legal.

Police officers cannot arbitrarily pull people over. There must be reasonable suspicion before a cop can stop a vehicle. As a result, one of the main areas to review when facing driving while intoxicated (DWI) charges is whether or not the officer had reasonable suspicion to support the stop. If not, the charges may get thrown out.

What kind of police stops lead to review?

The Supreme Court of Minnesota recently heard a case questioning the actions of an officer during a DWI stop. The court dug into the specific motivation for the stop and analyzed whether it was legal. This case provides an example that can be helpful for those facing similar charges.

More on the case - what led to the DWI stop and what is the potential issue?

In this case, State v. Morse, a driver was allegedly observed leaving a downtown area known to have many bars making a wide right turn and weaving within his lane at 2:00 a.m. After these observations, an officer pulled the driver over on suspicion of drunk driving.

The driver contends that the wide right turn and a single weave while driving are not enough to support a stop. In response, it was argued that no single factor supported the stop. Instead the stop was supported by the "totality of the circumstances."

What is the "totality of the circumstances?"

The "totality of the circumstances" is defined by Black's Law Dictionary to occur "when all the factors surrounding an event are taken into account, usually to determine whether there has been a violation of a person's constitutional rights." Essentially, this allows police officers to use a number of factors to justify a stop, not just one.

Determining how to apply the totality of the circumstances can be difficult. The court points to precedent case State v. Johnson, noting that a "trained police officer is entitled to draw inferences on the basis of 'all of the circumstances ... inferences and deductions that might well elude an untrained person."

In this case, the state argued that the time of night in combination with the location, wide turn and weave as well as the officer's training and experience meet the totality of the circumstances and justified the stop.

Who was right?

The court of appeals found in favor of the driver, noting the driver did not actually commit any traffic offense that would justify a stop. However, the Supreme Court of Minnesota notes that the analysis used to come to this conclusion was not used at the trial court level. Since the court of appeals is required to "generally consider 'only those issues that the record shows were presented and considered by the trial court in deciding the matter before it,'" it was found to be in error. As such, the Supreme Court ultimately held in favor of the state.

Does this mean a failure to have a true traffic violation can make the stop illegal?

As with all things in the law, it is not quite that simple. Digging into whether a traffic violation was present can be helpful in building a defense strategy, but it is important to note that this strategy would likely need to address other precedent cases that have found a stop may be reasonable without a traffic violation. In some cases, unusual driving can suffice.

As a result, this case provides an example of one potential defense strategy that can be used as a starting point in conjunction with others. Determining the right strategy is generally best done by an attorney.