State v. Dunham / State v. Tatham, 2013 VT 15
Last week, we opined about the nature of DUI law and the reasons why so many DUI cases are vigorously challenged despite the relatively simple and straightforward nature that such crimes are detected. This week brings an exception that almost seems to prove the rule (until it doesn’t).
Defendants in each of the consolidated cases were driving late at night. The first was driving on U.S. Route 5 near the intersection with Lake Morey Road (Trivia Note: this close to where a pivotal scene from the 1983 Robin Williams/Walter Matthau vehicle, The Survivors, was filmed). The second was in Bradford.
In both cases, the Defendants drove past state troopers who because of circumstances could not get a clear target with their radar but who observed the Defendants driving at speeds that the troopers assessed to be well above the speed limit. In both cases, the troopers gave pursuit, stopped the vehicles to warn them about speeding, detected alcohol emanating from the vehicle and eventually processed them for DUI.
The sole reason the Defendants are before the SCOV stems from the traffic stop. Defendants contest the troopers’ initial stop. The Defendants argued that such observations could not give rise to reasonable suspicion justifying the pursuit and stop. In other words, the troopers needed more proof that Defendants were in fact breaking the law and a quick glance and an informal sizing up the situation cannot suffice as a matter of law.
This is familiar territory for anyone dealing with DUI law. The question is not whether the troopers’ observations were sufficient to arrest the Defendants for DUI but whether they were enough to justify the pursuit and initial stop.
The SCOV, as you might expect given its previous pronouncements in this area, finds the basis sufficient to create probable cause for the initial stops. The opinion goes on at some length about the reasons why, but they boil down to the following two factors:
- The troopers testified that they had trained and were fairly proficient at estimating the speed of a vehicle to within 5 miles of its actual speed; and
- The observed speeds were well in excess of this margin of error and would have been obvious to even a lay-observer.
This is enough to justify the trial court’s denial of Defendants’ motions to suppress the initial stops, which means that the trial court properly allowed the evidence and the DUI charges. The convictions stand.
This is not a surprising outcome. The SCOV, in conjunction with the SCOTUS and other jurisdictions, has set the bar low for what constitutes a reasonable and articulable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop. Whether it is driving with a light out or weaving within a lane, the bar for such stops is low. Now you can add guestimates of speed to that list.
Such observations, however, will get the police only so far in a warrantless search. These initial suspicions will justify a stop and nothing more.
It will take additional evidence from the driver or circumstances after the stop to support an additional set of reasonable suspicions entitling the police go further than simply warning the driver about her speed, but of course when the inside of the car smells like a distillery, they don’t need much more.