Friday, December 10, 2010

Driving Near 6th Street Late at Night - Must Be Drunk

My last post was about the “reasonable suspicion” standard as applied by the 4th District Court of Appeals (San Antonio). A day after posting about that case, the Court of Criminal Appeals released a new “reasonable suspicion” case – Foster v. State. In this case, the CCA reverses the 3rd District Court of Appeals (Austin) which previously held that reasonable suspicion did not exist to justify appellant’s investigative detention. The CCA concludes, however, that the officer did have reasonable suspicion to justify detaining appellant. The detention resulted in appellant’s arrest and conviction for DWI.

What is becoming all too clear from reading these cases is that a “reasonable suspicion” determination can go either way, and that a big factor in the case is the initial ruling of the trial court. The law requires that appellate courts give the trial court decision great deference, which, if this standard is applied, can make it quite difficult to overturn a trial judge’s ruling on this issue.

Let’s see what you think about the CCA’s determination that the officer has “reasonable suspicion” to justify appellant’s detention. Here’s what the officer observed:

  • Appellant was driving his vehicle near the Sixth Street bar district in Austin.
  • It was late at night.
  • Austin police often observe people driving while intoxicated near this area late at night.
  • Appellant stopped his vehicle closely behind the officer’s unmarked vehicle at a traffic light.
  • Appellant’s vehicle exhibited a lurching movement forward after he had stopped at the light.
  • Appellant’s vehicle moved forward again as if to try to change lanes at the light, but he was too close to the officer’s unmarked vehicle to execute the lane change.
That’s it. That is all the objective evidence the officer had to justify the investigative detention that led to appellant’s arrest for DWI. A little flimsy if you ask me. Okay, you might say, “But wasn’t he actually driving while intoxicated? Why does it matter that the officer’s reason for the stop is a bit flimsy?” I’ll tell you why. Because we don’t live in Nazi Germany. The police cannot simply stop you whenever they have a hunch. The U.S. Constitution gives us the right to be “secure in our person, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures” and we should guard against even the slightest erosion of this right. Any police detention that is not based upon specific, articulable facts should be met with sharp contempt. That’s my $0.02. But, once again, this case turned on the trial court’s initial ruling that the stop was justified, and based on the great deference owed that decision, the CCA felt it must uphold the trial court’s ruling.