One of the great challenges for drunk driving defense attorneys, whether in the state of Indiana or nationwide, is overcoming the general judicial inclination to find probable cause for any and all initiated traffic stops.
Within a dui prosecution when one has been stopped for impaired driving though the alleged use of alcohol and/or drugs, the first potential challenge for the investigating dui defense attorney is to examine the basis upon which the driver was stopped and whether the stop merits legal challenge.
Within many initiated stops the probable cause to stop and question a driver is rather clear cut and able to withstand judicial scrutiny. For example, one who has been involved in a traffic accident or engages on a high speed chase or other action to evade law enforcement has demonstrated a specific articulable basis upon which apprehension much less further questioning is warranted.
However, more commonly within the context of traffic stops leading to ultimate dui arrests based upon alcohol and/or drugs, the basis upon which probable cause for a traffic stop has been initiated is not always so apparently justified.
The majority of dui prosecutions I deal with stem from initiated traffic stops due to traffic infractions of some kind. Unlike clear assertions of impairment such as drivers alleged to be weaving, crossing into other lanes of traffic or driving the wrong way down a one way street, the perils awaiting drivers who believe they are driving carefully often arise from non impairment traffic violations.
For example, a broken taillight, expired license plate or even alleged weaving within a lane of traffic have been stated articulable rationale upon which Indiana appellate court review has found a sufficient basis for probable cause justifying a stop and ultimate questioning for impaired operation of a motor vehicle.
Further compounding the challenges for the defense is the lower threshold of proof necessary to withstand legal challenge for the investigative stop itself so as to prevent a dui charge from being thrown out of court without the possibility of continued legal action. Unlike the beyond a reasonable doubt standard required to uphold a criminal conviction for a dui prosecution, it is only the lowered preponderance of evidence standard that brings otherwise good people within the purview of legal judgement as a result of an initiated traffic stop.
This week an uncommon blow is reported by Attorney Gregg J. Stark in the name of upholding the underpinnings of probable cause was delivered by judicial appellate review deriving out of an initiated traffic stop within Kokomo Indiana.
The legal basis of the appeal resulted from a driver being stopped as a result of his turn signal being activated through a thoroughfare where the driver did not in fact turn. As a result of the turn signal being operational without a turn being commenced, the Howard county trial court found probable cause for the initiated traffic stopped that ultimately resulted in the driver being arrested for possession of Marijuana allegedly found within the motor vehicle.
The court of appeals disagreed with the ruling and in my view took the surprising action of overturning the trial court’s determination of valid probable cause based upon the above cited fact pattern. Indiana case law is replete with contrary decisions that often confound defense lawyers in bending over backwards to uphold probable cause for a stop in circumstances often far more egregious.
It is refreshing to be able to cite this example as an instance where the concept of probable cause was preserved within an era where probable cause has too often become a mere inconvenient roadblock for prosecutors and law enforcement in their quest to further prosecute drivers whether stopped for drugs and/or alcohol impairment throughout the state of Indiana.