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Court Explains Grounds for Performing a Traffic Stop Under Washington Law

People are protected by both the State and Federal Constitutions against unreasonable search and seizures. What this means, in part, is that the police cannot stop a driver absent a warrant or a reasonable suspicion that the person is engaging in criminal behavior. Thus, if the police stop a motorist without cause and the person is subsequently charged with a DUI offense, there may be grounds to suppress the evidence gathered during the stop. What constitutes sufficient grounds to effectuate a traffic stop was the topic of a recent Washington opinion in which the defendant sought a reversal of his DUI conviction. If you are accused of driving under the influence, it is advisable to consult a knowledgeable Washington DUI defense attorney to discuss your possible defenses.

The Defendant’s Arrest

Allegedly, a police officer was dispatched to investigate a hit and run accident involving a white SUV. When he arrived at the scene, he observed a sedan with significant damage to the driver’s side door parked on the shoulder of the highway. The driver of the sedan was lying unconscious on the side of the road, and a witness advised the officer that the white SUV struck the sedan and the driver and sped off.

It is reported that later that evening, a second officer observed the defendant driving a white SUV of the same make and model as the one involved in the accident and made a traffic stop. When he approached the vehicle, the officer observed that the defendant smelled of marijuana, his eyes were glazed over, and he was lethargic. The officer observed that the SUV had damage consistent with the earlier accident, and after questioning the defendant, arrested him for DUI. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop, but his motion was denied. He was convicted, after which he appealed.

Grounds for Performing a Traffic Stop

On appeal, the defendant argued that the articulable and precise facts the arresting officer knew when he stopped the defendant were insufficient to provide a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was engaging in criminal activity. Therefore, he argued that the stop was unconstitutional, and the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. The appellate court disagreed and affirmed the trial court ruling.

Specifically, the appellate court explained that a traffic stop constitutes a seizure and that warrantless seizures are unreasonable as a matter of law under both the State and Federal Constitutions unless they fall under a narrow exception to the warrant requirement. The court elaborated, though, that a Terry stop, or brief investigatory seizure, constitutes such an exception. Terry stops are permissible if an officer has a reasonable suspicion of unlawful behavior based on specific, articulable facts. In the subject case, the appellate court found that the evidence demonstrated the officer connected the defendant’s vehicle with the earlier crime, and therefore, the stop was lawful.

Meet with a Skilled Criminal Defense Attorney in Washington

A DUI conviction can result in significant penalties, but in matters in which the State’s case is grounded in unlawfully obtained evidence, the charges may be dismissed. If you are accused of a DUI offense, it is prudent to talk to a lawyer about your rights. The skilled Washington criminal defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Smith & White are dedicated to helping people accused of crimes in the pursuit of justice, and if you hire us, we will fight diligently on your behalf. You can reach us via our form online or at 253-203-1645 to set up a meeting.

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