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Court Examines Grounds for a DUI Investigation in Washington

by | Jan 10, 2024 | DUI

Law enforcement agents must adhere to constitutional principles when investigating crimes, including DUI offenses. In other words, they must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to stop a motorist for suspected DUI. If they lack suspicion or other grounds for conducting a warrantless investigation, any evidence obtained during the investigation may be deemed inadmissible, as shown in a recent Washington opinion issued in a DUI case. If you are accused of a DUI crime, it is in your best interest to talk to a Tacoma DUI defense lawyer about your rights.

History of the Case

It is reported that in July 2019, a police officer responded to a 911 call from a witness, reporting a man in his mid-thirties staggering through a parking lot. The witness reportedly observed the man, later identified as the defendant, getting into a black pickup truck and moving it within the lot. The police officer, upon arrival, encountered a man pointing to a black truck, claiming the defendant was intoxicated. The officer, unfamiliar with the man, failed to verify his identity and speculated he was the caller. The officer, who found the caller’s tip insufficient to arrest the defendant, then decided to observe the defendant’s driving to corroborate the suspicion of impairment.

Allegedly, the officer then followed the defendant but lost sight of him temporarily due to traffic. She then noted the defendant drifting and suspected speeding. Ultimately, upon noting no definitive infractions, she decided to initiate a traffic stop due to a faulty brake light. The subsequent stop led to the defendant’s DUI arrest and charges. Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop. The trial court denied his motion, and he was convicted. He appealed, and the trial court ruling was reversed, finding the tip that led to the investigation tip unreliable and uncorroborated. The city then appealed.

Grounds for Instituting a DUI Investigation

On appeal, the court affirmed the order in favor of the defendant. In doing so, the court disagreed with the city’s assertions that the tip was reliable, emphasizing that the arresting officer lacked familiarity with the witness who provided the tip.

The court explained that warrantless seizures were presumed to be unreasonable, and the burden was on the state to show an exception to the warrant requirement. One such exception was a Terry stop, justified by reasonable suspicion based on specific and articulable facts.

The court then analyzed the reliability of the witness’s tip, focusing on two elements: veracity and basis of knowledge. The city argued that the tip was reliable because the witness called 911, gave his name, and reported contemporaneous eyewitness information. The court noted, however, that even with such factors, the tip might not create a sustainable basis for a Terry stop.

The court highlighted the officer’s lack of familiarity with the witness, stating that an officer’s lack of familiarity with an informant generally undermined reliability. As such,  due to the insufficient reliability of the tip, the officer needed to corroborate it to have reasonable suspicion. As the officer’s observations of the defendant did not indicate criminal activity and did not support a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was driving under the influence, the tip did not provide a sufficient basis for a Terry stop.

Consult an Experienced Tacoma Attorney

If you are charged with a DUI offense, it is advisable to retain an attorney. The trusted Tacoma criminal defense lawyers of The Law Offices of Smith & White can evaluate the circumstances surrounding your arrest and help you to protect your interests. You can reach us through our form online or by calling us at (253) 203-1645 to arrange a conference.