Driving is a privilege, not a right, in Michigan. This means that vehicle owner and operators have to comply with certain rules and regulations in order to maintain their license. These laws include the “implied consent” rules, meaning that drivers must comply with a requirement to submit to blood, urine or breath testing on the request of the police officer to determine blood alcohol content levels. Failure to comply with the implied consent rules can lead to license sanctions that take the driver off the road. Do the implied consent rules mean that drivers are subjected to random pull overs by the police on mere suspicion of drunk driving alone?
Fortunately, the answer is no. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution enshrines “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” without a valid warrant. An automobile stop by the police is therefore subject to the constitutional command that it not be “unreasonable” under the circumstances. The U.S. Supreme eventually issued the landmark opinion in Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806; 116 S.Ct. 1769; 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996) that held “[t]he temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective.” As long as police officers have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation under state and federal law has occurred, then they can stop the vehicle and investigate further. If the stop was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, then all of the evidence seized as a result of that illegal stop can be suppressed by the judge before trial (including any blood tests or breathalyzer results that showed an illegal blood alcohol level or the presence of controlled substances in the driver at the time he or she operated the vehicle).
Many drunk-driving defense cases live and die on whether or not the initial traffic stop was valid. However, any probable cause that the driver violated an aspect of the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code, no matter how slight, can justify the stop of the vehicle and further investigation by police officers:
- People v Dunbar, 499 Mich 60; 879 NW2d 229 (2016) – Police officers stopped the defendant’s vehicle after observing that the vehicle’s registration plate was partially obstructed by a bumper-mounted towing ball, a civil infraction under MCL 257.225(2). This traffic stop led to the police officer smelling burnt marijuana in the car, which further led to a search that uncovered illegal contraband and led to criminal charges. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence based on an unlawful stop after concluding there was probable cause that MCL 257.225(2) was violated. The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that MCL 257.225(2) does not prohibit the obstruction of a registration plate by a towing ball and reversed the judgment. The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the lower appellate court and determined that the defendant did in fact violate MCL 257.225(2) when the towing ball obscured the registration plate so police officers had a lawful basis to stop his vehicle. Therefore, defendant will have to stand trial on the illegal contraband that was discovered during the search.
- People v Williams, 236 Mich App 610; 601 NW2d 138 (1999) – Defendant is stopped by police officers on the basis that a single tail lamp was not working in violation of MCL 257.686. This leads to a vehicle search that uncovers drugs in the vehicle and defendant was later charged with possession with intent to deliver less than 50 grams of cocaine in violation of MCL 333.7401(2)(a)(iv). The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence on the basis that the traffic stop was invalid. The trial court agreed and found that the law only required the defendant’s car to be equipped with one operative tail lamp. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, finding that MCL 257.686(2) requires that when a vehicle is designed to have multiple tail lamps , then “all tail lamps intended for use on an automobile would have to be operative in order for the automobile to be in compliance with the Motor Vehicle Code.” Therefore, the trial court wrongly concluded that there was no traffic violation and the motion to suppress was reversed.
- People v Williams, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals issued August 6, 2009 (Docket No. 282100) – The defendant was pulled over in his vehicle by a police officer because he could not read the state on his license plate. The traffic stop led to the discovery of drugs and defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute less than 50 grams of cocaine pursuant to MCL 333.7401(2)(a)(iv). The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence. At the hearing, the police officer played the dashcam video from the incident and testified that the video also showed that the defendant changed lanes without using a turn signal (although that was not his stated reason for the stop). The Oakland County Circuit Court granted the motion to suppress because it felt it was improper to justify the stop for any other reason than what the police officer believed at the time. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the decision and denied the order suppressing evidence, finding that it was undisputed the defendant violated MCL 257.648 when he changed lanes without signalling and “[t]he fact that the officer did not cite that as a basis for the stop is immaterial.” The officer’s actual motivation involving investigating the possible improper plate does not impact the reasonableness of the stop in light of the other civil infraction.
If there is not an actual traffic violation, then the evidence could be suppressed and the charges thrown out as illustrated in these actual cases:
- People v Kocevar, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals issued March 16, 2017 (Docket No. 329150) – Defendant was pulled over by a police officer after the front passenger tire of his motor vehicle momentarily crossed the fog line. The traffic stop led to the police officer searching the vehicle and discovering methadone, leading the defendant to be charged with possession of a controlled substance less than 25 grams contrary to MCL 333.7403(2)(a)(v). The defendant moved to suppress the evidence but the motion was denied by the trial court. At the hearing, the police officer testified: “”Based on my training and experience, when people cross the fog line or don’t keep within their lane of travel, it indicates they could be intoxicated.” The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and ruled that the evidence should have been suppressed. Although MCL 257.642 says a motor vehicle “shall be operated as nearly as practicable within a single lane”, the momentarily crossing into the fog line (the solid line near the shoulder of the road) does not amount to a violation of the statute. The very brief crossing of the fog line does not amount to a traffic violation and, therefore, the stop was invalid.
- People v Owen, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals issued July 23, 2019 (Docket No. 339668) – Defendant was pulled over for allegedly driving 43 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone. The police officer performed field sobriety tests and a preliminary breath test to determine that the defendant was not sober, and he was arrested and charged with OWVI and possessing a firearm while intoxicated. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence on the basis that there was no lawful basis for the stop because he was driving on a road without a posted speed limit so the statutory general speed limit under MCL 256.628(1) applies. The circuit court denied the motion to suppress after several proceedings. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed and found that the evidence should have been suppressed because “analysis of the totality of the circumstances in this case establishes that the deputy lacked an articulable and reasonable basis for making the traffic stop. The deputy’s subjective mistaken belief that the speed limit was 25 miles per hour lacked objective reasonableness. Therefore, the traffic stop was not lawful and it violated defendant’s constitutional rights requiring suppression of the evidence obtained by the unlawful stop.” The case is currently on appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court.
If you are pulled over and then subsequently charged with a DUI or any other criminal offense, you need a skilled criminal defense lawyer in your corner that can assert all of the rights available to you under the law. A traffic stop conducted contrary to the Fourth Amendment might create an opportunity to file a motion to suppress the evidence. Even if you were actually intoxicated or there was illegal contraband in the vehicle, all of the incriminating evidence that was discovered as a result of the bad traffic stop could be “suppressed”, or thrown out, so it can’t be introduced to the jury at a trial. This suppression is usually fatal enough to the prosecutor’s case to result in a dismissal before trial. If a motion to suppress is not timely filed, you could end up with a conviction based on the trier of fact learning about the evidence that should have been excluded. You get once chance to mount an effective defense, and you could spend years undoing a bad result if not successful. Be sure to get the best advocacy from the very beginning.
If you or a loved one is charged with a DUI offense and need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.