Almost every time I speak to a potential client about their DUI arrest, a majority of questions are attempting to gain insight into the legality of the traffic stop, what evidence the officer likely gained of DUI, and what the client could have, in theory, done differently. This series of blog posts is meant to be truly useful reading for anyone who drinks any amount of alcohol and then drives in Georgia. By discussing these situations and perhaps giving advice on avoiding them, I am not condoning or discouraging anyone's actions. Instead, I am simply giving real-world insight into what I see in defending DUI and related criminal defense cases on a daily basis.
One: Why was I pulled over again? Why the cop's stop matters in a DUI case.
When driving down a road in Georgia, you do have some protection against arbitrary or harassing stops, detentions, and questioning from law enforcement. Under Georgia law, there are three levels of police-citizen encounters: (1) the consensual encounter, (2) the brief detention, and (3) custodial arrest. Consensual encounters are hardly ever seen in DUI situations, as a vast majority of situations involve someone being stopped while actually driving down the road. Anyone can see how a consensual encounter, like a casual conversation, is usually pretty difficult from a moving vehicle. With the exception of roadblocks and accidents (where vehicles are stopped), almost all traffic stops in Georgia begin with an officer putting on the blue lights in an effort to have you pull over. This action by law enforcement, under Georgia law, falls into that second classification above: the brief detention.
While a brief detention does not need probable cause to support it, the officer must have a reasonable belief that criminal activity has or is about to occur. A majority of traffic stops involve the officer actually witnessing you doing something they believe is a violation of the law. Speeding, weaving, not having your headlights on, and not obeying traffic devices are all common examples of violations that frequently get people pulled over and subsequently investigated for DUI. In this situation, the officer sees what they know to be a violation of a state law and can then pull you over, assuming they can explain their reasoning when your defense attorney later challenges it.
Sometimes an officer's reasoning or the legality of pulling you over may not be so clear. In a 2010 case I handled, the officer claimed he saw blue lights on the front of my client's car. (displaying blue lights is illegal under Georgia law) After reviewing the video evidence and having the client send photographs of his vehicle at night, it became clear that there were in fact blue-colored led lights embedded in his side view mirrors. The client had admitted these lights were on that evening, yet came with the car when he purchased it. Unfortunately, after researching the law and weighing the likelihood of any success, it was decided that the Judge would almost certainly rule that my client's lights were in violation of Georgia law, giving the officer a legit reason to pull my client over. However, if the arresting officer mistakenly believes that you are in violation of Georgia law, your attorney will have something to challenge.
Most traffic stops are for moving violations, especially when a DUI investigation follows. Remember, even after you see the blues come on; it's not too late to start making a good record for your case. The officer has likely followed you for some distance in an effort to capture your bad driving or mistakes on video, as he knows the prosecutor, Judge and sometimes the jury will later see your driving. Cops are also trained that your driving actions are especially important in making a DUI case. In fact, of the three main phases of a DUI arrest, the driving is Phase 1.
If you have been pulled over and charged with DUI, remember to fully inform your attorney about your driving that evening and communicate to him or her how you felt you were driving. If you have no idea why you were pulled over, or if the police officer never really told you, make sure your attorney knows that as well. For anyone who has not been pulled over, but is simply educating themselves on Georgia law, remember that all an officer needs is to observe a violation of a law. They can then stop you, ask you routine questions, and upon detecting even a faint odor of alcohol, investigate you further. Make sure all of your equipment- break lights, headlights, turning signals- are in order. Make sure your tags and registration are up-to-date. And most importantly, obey Georgia's driving laws!