Let’s be very clear about this: The only thing a police officer needs to pull over your car is a reasonable suspicion that you may be in violation of the law – any law. That’s the very lowest legal standard the authorities have to meet in order to take action.
That means if a police officer is looking for drunk drivers, they don’t need much justification to pull you over. If you take a right turn a little too wide or don’t quite come to a full stop at a stop sign, that’s more than enough. Once an officer begins a traffic stop, they can start looking to see if you’re operating while intoxicated (OWI).
So, how do you keep a traffic stop from escalating into something more? Well, it helps to know the difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.”
A reasonable suspicion gets you pulled over, but they need probable cause for more
To go beyond the traffic stop and arrest you for drunk driving, an officer needs to have probable cause to believe that you’re drunk. This is a much higher burden of proof than the reasonable suspicion they needed for the traffic stop.
While reasonable suspicion is little more than an inkling or inclination, probable cause means that the officer has some kind of evidence that backs up the arrest. To protect yourself, you need to keep in mind that you don’t want to do anything to give the officer probable cause to believe you’re impaired.
This means you should:
- Be patient, polite and attentive so that you cannot be described as belligerent or “spaced out” by the officer or appear to be that way on body cam footage
- Decline to answer any questions unrelated to the traffic stop, including questions about where you have been or where you are going (which may be “fishing” attempts to draw out information that you’ve been somewhere alcohol is served)
- Decline to participate in standardized field sobriety tests, such as the walk-and-turn or one-legged stand tests, since these are very subjective and hard to pass
If all goes well, your traffic stop will end with nothing more than a ticket. If you are charged with drunk driving, however, you should take immediate steps to protect your legal interests. You may have more defenses available than you realize.