DWI Defense: Constitutional Challenges

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution provides each citizen with the right to be free “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” This requires police to proceed with caution and care when executing a traffic stop. Failure to adhere to strict guidelines and procedures can result in a violation of a defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. If this happens, you may be able to raise Constitutional defenses in your North Carolina DWI case.

DWI Traffic Stops Permissible

In North Carolina, DWI traffic stops are considered to be Constitutional. This means that if police have reasonable suspicion to believe that you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol while operating a motor vehicle, they have every right to pull you over and assess the situation. It is important to understand that, as a driver on North Carolina roads, you assume a few responsibilities when you get behind the wheel.

First, you have the responsibility of pulling over to the side of the road whenever police indicate that they want you to stop. Failing or refusing to pull over can lead to serious criminal charges. Second, under North Carolina's implied consent law, you must comply with an officer's request to submit to chemical testing. In other words, if the police officer wants to use a breathalyzer or blood test to determine your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), you are legally obligated to take the test. Refusing to comply with the officer's request will result in the automatic suspension of your driver's license and possible jail time.

When May Constitutional Issues Arise?

Police have the right to pull you over if they suspect you are driving while impaired, and you have certain duties to comply with their requests. When, then, may Constitutional issues arise? In the simplest terms, Constitutional issues may present themselves when police fail to stick to procedures and regulations.

Improper Stop

Police cannot simply pull over any car at any time. In order for a traffic stop to be lawful in North Carolina, police must have reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver has broken the law. What is reasonable suspicion? The Supreme Court of the United States has explained that reasonable suspicion exists when an objectively reasonable officer believes, based on “specific and articulable facts...taken together with rational inferences from those facts,” that criminal activity exists. In other words, a police officer must be able to assess a situation and determine, based on his or her experience and training, that a crime exists. Police may have reasonable suspicion when they

  1. Witness a traffic violation,
  2. Identify a vehicle with expired tags or a safety issue (e.g., broken tail light), or
  3. Observe behavior that would lead a reasonable person to believe a driver is impaired.

Weaving, driving too fast, driving too slowly, and failing to maintain a lane may all be used to support reasonable suspicion.

A DWI stop, and resulting criminal charges, can be challenged if it can be proved that the arresting officer did not have reasonable suspicion to make the stop in the first place. In order to prove that the required suspicion did not exist, you would have to present evidence to prove that (1) you did not violate any laws, and (2) you did not demonstrate behavior that would lead a reasonable person to believe you were impaired.

Improper Search

While a traffic stop only requires police to have reasonable suspicion, searches are a bit different. Police have a right to do a cursory search of the vehicle for evidence that may be in plain sight. In doing this, police may use flashlights, the assistance of police dogs, and/or order you and other passengers out of the vehicle. Searches that go beyond plain view must be supported by probable cause.

Probable cause is a heightened standard and requires more proof that a crime has been committed. Your DWI stop and criminal charges can be contested on Constitutional grounds if police lacked probable cause to search your vehicle. This may be most relevant if police discover contraband or harmful evidence in an illegal search.

What Happens When a Stop or Search is Illegal?

The state should not be allowed to benefit from a police officer's illegal behaviors and violations of your Constitutional rights. Under the exclusionary rule, the state is prohibited from using any illegally-obtained evidence against you in a criminal matter. Asserting a Constitutional violation can be incredibly beneficial to your case. Your attorney can also file a motion to suppress any evidence that has been tainted by illegal activity. Without evidence to support its case against you, the state may be forced to drop the charges.

Experienced North Carolina DWI Attorneys

When is a DWI stop and arrest not in violation of your Constitutional rights? When might you have a valid Constitutional defense after a DWI arrest? The best way to find out the answers to these questions is by contacting an experienced North Carolina DWI attorney after your DWI arrest. At Caulder & Valentine, we can review your case, determine which defenses may apply, and help you assert a strong defense. Call us today to schedule a consultation and find out more.