As would be the case anywhere in the United States, law enforcement officers here in North Carolina can’t just put you under arrest, search your car or take your property during a traffic stop. In order to take any of these actions without a warrant, an officer must first establish probable cause.
Did you ever wonder why police officers give breath tests to people they suspect of being intoxicated? Have you wondered why an officer asks to search your car? In the case of a DUI, establishing probable cause often involves a breath test, field sobriety tests and any other alleged evidence (such as weaving, no headlights at night or an accident).
What constitutes probable cause in a DUI arrest?
Would a “reasonable” person think you were drunk based on certain circumstances? It takes more than a suspicion or a hunch to establish probable cause for an arrest. During a traffic stop, an officer can detain you based on a reasonable suspicion of impairment. This means that the circumstances warrant further investigation. This is ordinarily when an officer conducts a breath test and field sobriety tests.
If that investigation provides probable cause, the officer may take you into custody. A blood alcohol concentration level at or above .08 percent (North Carolina’s legal BAC limit) and a supposedly failed field sobriety test may be enough for this purpose. However, the officer must account for the arrest after the fact by reporting how he or she believes probable cause existed.
What creates probable cause for a warrantless search?
Unless the following circumstances exist, an officer can’t conduct a search without a warrant:
- You consent to the search.
- The officer believes that public safety is at risk.
- The officer believes the alleged evidence may disappear.
- The officer can plainly view supposed contraband.
When can an officer seize your property without a warrant?
An officer may seize property believed to be evidence of a crime, stolen or contraband without a warrant. If it turns out that the officer took the property without the appropriate probable cause, it may become inadmissible in court if a judge rules that probable cause did not exist.
How does all this apply to your DUI case?
If evidence exists that the officer failed to follow proper procedures or made a mistake, there may not have been sufficient probable cause for your arrest, any subsequent search or the seizure of any alleged evidence. One area often scrutinized in DUI cases is the field sobriety tests, which often rely on an officer’s opinion more than anything else.
Another issue that comes up often is the validity of breath test results. The machines used require periodic calibration and maintenance in order to function properly. If they don’t, the results of the test fail to show probable cause for an arrest. In addition, the officer may incorrectly operate the machine, which could also skew the results and invalidate probable cause.
The importance of investigating and closely scrutinizing the circumstances leading to the arrest can’t be stressed enough. Any factor that negates the alleged probable cause used to substantiate your arrest affects the outcome of your case.