Challenging Probable Cause for a Traffic Stop in Colorado

One important defense strategy in Colorado DUI or DUID cases is to challenge the legal basis for the initial traffic stop.  As explained more fully below, this defense is growing narrower and narrower, becoming increasingly difficult for even the most skilled defense attorneys to establish.2657947289_908fa50396

Vehicle Code Violations

Generally an initial traffic stop is supported by probable cause if the police officer had reason to believe that a vehicle code violation had taken place.  The traditional rule was that an officer could be mistaken in fact and the stop would still be permitted under what is called the good faith exception.  That meant that if the officer had a belief that someone had committed a violation but they in fact had not, the stop would still be upheld.  Until recently, however, officers were still required to identify an actual, existing traffic infraction that they believed the driver had violated.  This changed last year when the United States Supreme Court decided Heien v. North Carolina.

In that case a traffic stop was upheld when the officer pulled over a driver for a broken tail light.  The problem in that case was that it was not actually a violation of the vehicle code to have only one broken tail light, as long as the other one was still working.  The court ruled to extend the good faith exception to a police officer’s mistake of the law and upheld the traffic stop as constitutional on the basis that such a mistake was not unreasonable.

What makes the decision more troubling is that the court ignored the traditional rule (still held against criminal defendants) that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”  This ruling makes it very difficult in many cases to challenge the legality of a traffic stop.  But there are still ways to do it.  In cases where the officer’s mistake of law or fact was actually unreasonable, or where misconduct and animus was present, traffic stops may still be challenged.  However, this is a difficult road and requires counsel of the utmost skill.

Basis for Further Investigation: Objective Indicia of Intoxication

Just because a traffic stop may be justified, however, does not mean that an officer is automatically justified in prolonging the detention.  A mere vehicle code violation in itself is supposed to be brief, ending in either the issuance of a citation or of a warning.  Then the driver is supposed to be free to go on his way.  An officer who escalates a routine traffic stop into a prolonged investigative detention must show probable cause to justify the further inquiry.  This means in the case of a field sobriety test and DUI investigation, the officer must be able to articulate some objective indication of the presence of alcohol, such as smell of alcohol on one’s breath or other psycho-physical factors.  In the case of a DUID investigation, the bar is higher for an officer to show such factors because (with the exception of marijuana), the unassisted human nose is unlikely to be able to detect the presence of most drugs.  Sometimes officers acting on a hunch do not in fact have the reasonable basis required by the law to turn a routine traffic stop into a full-blown criminal investigation.  In these cases, it takes a skilled and crafty attorney to identify the procedural errors of the officer in order to challenge the detention.

Contact a Colorado DUI and DUID Defense Attorney

If you have been arrested for DUI or DUID in Colorado, you may have defenses available to you that you are not aware of.  If police misconduct occurred, a good attorney may actually get your case thrown out altogether, or at least use the misconduct to leverage you a favorable deal.  Don’t face the justice system alone.  Contact the skilled attorneys at Tiftickjian Law Firm today.  We have the knowledge and experience to identify your best defenses, and if you retain our services, we will fight for you.

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