Probable Cause in DUI Cases


California State Finance Director, Ana Matosantos, provides us with a platform to discuss a very common issue in many DUI cases: Probable Cause.  According to the Sacramento Daily Journal, she was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, around 12:45 a.m. Saturday morning.  The officer who arrested her stated that he had observed signs of intoxication that included “weaving on the street.”  The stop was based on the premise that Matosantos’ driving behavior indicated she was driving under the influence.

Almost everyone has some general sense of the meaning of probable cause, but too few really understand how pivotal a role probable cause plays in every DUI case.

As you drive your vehicle amongst the highways here in California, you have the right not be stopped and detained by law enforcement – absent some reasonable level of probable cause, which would give law enforcement a legitimate suspicion that you are committing a crime.  DUI’s are very different than other driving infractions where law enforcement is able to view you, let’s say speeding or driving too close to another vehicle.  In these instances, law enforcement actually observes the crime taking place, and that actual act is the probable cause to pull you over and ticket you.

In the situation of a DUI, officers don’t really know you’re under the influence until they pull you over, perform Field Sobriety Tests, perform a Preliminary Alcohol Screening test (which you have the right to refuse without DMV penalty), and then put all that information together to form a conclusion.  As you can see, this is a very intrusive process, and our government has created certain criteria to fulfill before innocent civilians are put through such a process.

The safe guard for law-abiding citizens is “Probable Cause.”  Before a law enforcement officer can pull over a driver for the suspicion of driving under the influence, he must have probable cause to do so.  In the instant situation with Matosantos, the officer states that it was the “weaving” which gave ground to probable cause to stop her.  Weaving is a very common assertion made by law enforcement in forming probable cause to stop drivers.  However, there is a 3-prong test that must be fulfilled before the weaving can be said to constitute probable cause:

  1. The weaving must be pronounced weaving;
  2. Over a substantial distance;
  3. Viewed by an officer who is trained and certified to do so.

Failure by law enforcement to create an evidentiary basis that the above elements of the test were met can in some circumstances result in the dismissal of the case based on lack of probable cause to stop the driver. This just goes to show you how complicated DUI’s defense can be, and why you really need someone that knows the intricacies of the system, and is willing to look into every aspect of the case in order to win.

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