For A DUI Stop, Police Need “Reasonable Suspicion” Of Criminal Activity


Every now and then, a DUI decision comes along that sums up a very important point of law. One of these decisions came down in January 2015 from the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District.

If the police wish to stop a motorist for a suspected DUI, they must have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  Stops based on mere curiosity, or based on pretexts, are not legally valid.  This was the rule that the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District recently (2014) reminded the legal community of.  The case was State v. Cardwell (WD76791), on appeal from Cole County, Missouri.  After a bench trial, Mr. Cardwell was convicted of driving while intoxicated under Section 577.010 of RSMo.  On appeal he argued that the trial court should have granted his motion to suppress evidence. The Court of Appeals agreed with Cardwell and reversed the conviction.

Cardwell had filed a motion to suppress evidence during the case.  He argued that, because the officer who stopped him did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to do so, all evidence obtained thereafter should be suppressed. His motion was denied, and he was convicted.  When the officer initiated the stop, Cardwell argued, he did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that Cardwell’s behavior suggested that he may be involved in illegal activity.  Thus the officer’s stop and seizure of Cardwell was unreasonable, and evidence obtained thereafter should have been suppressed.

The officer testified that when he first stopped Cardwell, he observed Cardwell to have watery, bloodshot eyes, could smell the odor of alcohol from his car, and Cardwell admitted to the officer that he had been drinking.  But the real issue, the Court found, was whether Cardwell should have been stopped in the first place.

The testimony of the police officer was the heart of the case.  The officer testified that on September 16, 2011, he was on his way to assist another officer, at approximately 1:00 in the morning, when he observed a vehicle in front of him traveling “very slow.”  The road was  gravel and “not a very wide road.” He testified that he quickly caught up with the vehicle, which was traveling in front of him and going in the same direction. The officer testified that the vehicle then stopped in the right hand lane and the driver motioned for him to go around and left him room to do so.

The officer said he instead chose to “check on the driver, make sure everything was okay[,]” and so he turned his lights on “so that he would know that it was a deputy behind him and that it wasn’t someone that was possibly a threat to him and also as a warning beacon to anyone else that would come up behind us or a beacon for other deputies should I need help.” At that point, the officer testified that he contacted the driver and had him show his driver’s license. The officer said although Cardwell then told him he was fine, he could smell alcohol coming from inside the vehicle.

The officer said he had not observed the vehicle commit any traffic offense. The officer testified that most people do not drive fifty-five miles per hour on a gravel road, indicating his perspective that driving slower than that was not “unusual conduct which [would] lead[] him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot, as required for the existence of reasonable suspicion.

Cardwell was detained when the officer activated his emergency lights. At that moment, the Court noted, a reasonable person would have believed he was not free to leave.  From looking at the entire circumstances, the Court found nothing to indicate that the detention of Cardwell was justified in the first place.  In other words, the officer had no reason to believe that criminal activity was in progress or had occurred. The detention and the arrest never should have occurred.

The Court summed up its position with this brief but succinct expression of the law in this area.  It is worth quoting here:

However, “whether an officer lacked reasonable suspicion ‘turns on an objective assessment of the officer’s actions in light of the facts and circumstances confronting him at the time and not on the officer’s actual state of mind at the time the challenged action was taken.’” Id. (quoting Maryland v. Macon, 472 U.S. 463, 470–71 (1985)) (emphasis added). An objective assessment of the events leading to Sergeant Huffman’s [the officer conducting the stop] stop of Cardwell fails to reveal any specific and articulable facts and rational inferences therefrom that would reasonably warrant the stop. Driving slowly on a rural gravel road in the early morning, coming to a stop when quickly approached from behind by another vehicle, and motioning the approaching vehicle to go around with adequate room to do so does not constitute “unusual conduct” leading reasonably to a conclusion that criminal activity is taking place. There was no indication Cardwell’s vehicle was in any way disabled or that Cardwell was in need of help. In fact, Cardwell waved the officer on.

Taking all of the circumstances into consideration, then, the Court was able to find that the officer never should have stopped Cardwell in the first place.  Why?  He had no reason to.  There was no indication that anything of a criminal nature had happened or would happen. The law is clear on this point, and it is good for law enforcement to be reminded of it.  For this reason, the Court reversed Caldwell’s conviction.

Read More:  The Field Sobriety Test In A DUI Or DWI Case