DUI Trial Testimony: Basis for Car Stop

by Jamison Koehler on September 19, 2013
D.C. skyline

Q:            Officer, as I understand it, you were parked behind my client at the intersection of 19th and M Streets northwest?

A:            Yes.

Q:            And there were two reasons you decided to pull him over?

A:            Yes.

Q:            The first reason was that he didn’t pull forward immediately when the light turned green?

A:            Yes, I was concerned that –

Q:            — And the second reason is that when he did pull forward, he drove too slowly?

A:            Yes, I –

Q:            — Let’s start with the not pulling forward.  You testified on direct that you honked your horn at him?

A:            I used the air horn.

Q:            And when you first testified to this, you said that you honked your horn a couple of times?

A:            It was the air horn.  I hit it one time and a couple of seconds went by, he wasn’t moving, so I hit it a couple of more times.

Q:            A couple.  A couple, as I understand it, is two.  Is that your understanding?

A:            Well, it depends, you know if –

Q:            Sir, it’s a simple question.  When I ask you what couple means –

THE COURT:  You have to let him answer.

Q:            Fair enough.

A:            It  — it depends and mostly concern – it – it – of the traffic.  I hit it one time, that – that one should have been enough for him to react and move across the light.  He –

Q:            Sir, I am not asking for an explanation.  I am asking for your interpretation of the word couple.  A couple, what does that mean to you, sir?

A:            Well, if you’re going with – do you want a specific definition?

Q:            Yes, please.

A:            Two.

Q:            Two?

A:            Yes, two.

Q:            Thank you.  Then you testified – the second time you were asked about it, you testified that it was three times that you blew the horn, right?

A:            Yes.

Q:            Okay.  And then, the third time you were asked about it, you said that you blew the horn four times, right?

A:            It was a total of four times from the first —

Q:            — Okay.  So – so –

A:            — to the final –

THE PROSECUTOR:  Objection, Judge.

THE COURT:  Basis.

THE PROSECUTOR:  I – just from what’s in evidence, it was my understanding that he testified he blew the horn four times.  I don’t know where this –

THE COURT:  Well, it’s cross examination.

THE PROSECUTOR:  Very well, Judge.

Q:            First you testified it was two times, then it was three times, then it was four?

A:            I blew the horn four times, from the initial time to when he decided to pull forward.

Q:            I see.  And the other reason you pulled him over was once he did pull forward he was driving too slow?

A:            Yes, I was concerned –

Q:            What is the speed limit on 19th going south?

A:            Should be 25 miles, unless otherwise posted.  That’s the speed limit in the District of Columbia.

Q:            And you testified on direct that he was going 20 miles —

A:            — I was concerned for the safety –

Q:            — Again, officer, I am not asking for an explanation.  I am asking how fast he was going.

A:            He was going 20 miles an hour.

Q:            This is in Georgetown

A:            Actually it is part of the triangle with Dupont –

Q:            — So it is near Georgetown?

A:            Yes.

Q:            And Thursday nights are pretty busy?

A:            Yes.

Q:            With lots of people out on the street and at clubs and restaurants?

A:            Yes, mostly restaurants –

Q:            Was it busy on this night?

A:            Yes, I would say so.

Q:            He wasn’t swerving?

A:            No.

Q:            He didn’t cross the center line?

A:            No.

Q:            He didn’t endanger anyone?

A:            Well, at that time, crossing any line, there was vehicles right when you went southbound from M Street, because it’s a majority of restaurants.  On the west side of the street, there were vehicles parked on both sides.  But, once we started going halfway down the block approaching L Street, there were parking spaces.

Q:            Okay.  And how does that answer my question?

A:            No, were you asking – concern endangering, I was concerned about the safety –

Q:            You already testified to that.  Were you concerned the court didn’t hear your answer the first time?

THE COURT:            Counselor, you can move – you can move on.

Q:            I’ll move on, I’ll move on.  Officer, did my client commit a traffic violation?

A:            It – mostly, my concern was the – slow reaction to the long traffic light –

Q:            Sir, I’m not asking you what your concern was.  I’m asking you – this is a yes or no question – -did he commit a traffic violation?

A:            He didn’t commit a traffic violation, but –

Q:            Thank you – thank you, sir.  I have no further questions.

10 Comments on “DUI Trial Testimony: Basis for Car Stop

  1. Best question ever:
    Q: Okay. And how does that answer my question?

    Great job.

  2. Yes, people in D.C. have strong feelings about folks who drive below the speed limit and don’t start moving a millisecond BEFORE the light changes, yet I don’t imagine those things literally constitute a traffic violation much less probable cause for a DUI situation. 🙂

    I love these lines in particular:

    THE PROSECUTOR: Objection, Judge.

    THE COURT: Basis.

    THE PROSECUTOR: I – just from what’s in evidence, it was my understanding that he testified he blew the horn four times. I don’t know where this –

    THE COURT: Well, it’s cross examination.

    THE PROSECUTOR: Very well, Judge.

    In other words:

    Prosecutor: Objection!
    Judge: Why?
    Prosecutor: I don’t know I’m just confused.
    Judge: Then sit down because the rules say it’s the other lawyer’s turn to talk.
    Prosecutor: Oh, all righty then.

    That sounds like an SNL skit performed at the taxpayer’s expense.

  3. Thanks for the post, Jamison. I know that law enforcement officers have difficult jobs and don’t generally do things as silly as what the officer above appeared to do, yet I am surprised by the degree to which the entire criminal justice system seems to push the envelope regarding probable cause as a standard practice.

    I understand that probable cause is a subtle concept that varies from state to state, etc. etc., yet my understanding is that probable cause only exists if you have reason to suspect someone is going to commit a crime/has committed a crime.

    From what I’ve seen and heard that concept is not relayed to the public or honored by many police officers. Instead, the mentality in many cases seems to be that the worst thing that will happen is that an illegal search will be thrown out. If there’s no penalty for doing so what’s the harm in violating someone’s civil rights and seeing what you might dredge up?

    Again, I know many great cops who do not behave that way and am not smearing the Law Enforcement Profession in general. I’m happy the folks in blue patrol the streets so I don’t have to and understand that in their shoes, I might have to make difficult decisions under pressure, too.

    But here’s an example of a less-than-professional instance of playing the probable cause card, completely unnecessarily, in my opinion.

    A friend got pulled over for driving on the wrong side of the road. She blew a .08 on the breathalyzer, which made her legally drunk in Maryland. She acknowledges that the police were right to pull her over for not being on the right side of the road and it was irresponsible and not legal for her to be driving with such a high blood alcohol level. So that behavior and the probably cause attached to it were taken care of.

    She also cooperated fully with the police.

    However, what she and I are confused about is what the cops did next. After she blew a .08 they started searching her car without her permission. When she asked them if they were allowed to do that they said, Ma’am, we can do whatever we want.” The implication was that if “we can prove you’re legally drunk, you have no civil rights.”

    I don’t think that was the right answer. I don’t believe that the law enforcement officers had the right to search my friend’s car unless they believed she was going to commit a crime that didn’t pertain to the DUI situation they had already addressed.

    Specifically, they only had probably cause to search the car if they thought my friend was going to commit another crime. In other words, unless there was a firearm on the front set, my friend’s clothing was bloody, and she resisted arrest, they did not have probable cause/any reason to believe she would commit another crime, that would justify searching her car against her clear spoken objection to them doing so.

    They didn’t find anything of interest in the car so there was no major issue in the end but the casual disregard for civil liberties troubles me even if I’m wrong and being drunk does enable the police to search your car without your permission. If that’s the case the officers could have at least said, “Ma’am we have probable cause to search your car because you’re legally drunk,” as opposed to stating,

    “we can do whatever we want, Ma’am.”

    I’m not asking for a legal analysis of this situation and I’m sure there’s subtly here, yet it troubles me that my well-educated friend believed that the police had the right to search her car, just because they said so and she was drunk, until I talked to her about the probable cause issue.

    If she didn’t know much about her civil rights and was treated the way she was that means that less-well-educated people are probably really getting the run around because it’s assumed they truly don’t know their legal rights regarding probable cause/giving permission to search a vehicle.

    So thanks for the post, Jamison. It’s a good public service announcement/food for thought.

  4. I looked it up on Findlaw.com and it appears that a case, albeit a weak one, perhaps, can be made for searching the interior of the car if you are stopped for any reason, but the trunk can’t be searched without permission unless there are discernible grounds to think you may commit a crime.

    I imagine that’s a very general rule and the probable cause situation varies from state-to-state. For example, a police officer who pulled me over because my tail light was out and had no reason to think I was going to commit a crime would have a hard time justifying searching my car, against my objections, in the long-term, I hope.

    So perhaps my friend’s civil rights were not violated as I don’t know whether the officers who arrested her searched the trunk of her car against her objections yet the answer, “we can do whatever we want, Ma’am” still doesn’t work for me and probably wouldn’t have sounded good in court either if these guys had found something illicit and my friend wanted to make an illegal search and seizure argument to have it suppressed on the grounds that they didn’t have probable cause to search the vehicle.

    Even if the search was indisputably legal saying, “we have the right to search the interior of your vehicle,” rather than “we can do whatever we want” would have been a more accurate and less terrifying thing to say to a citizen.

    Again, I understand that there are trade-offs between preserving civil liberties and protecting people from potentially harmful individuals on a theoretical level, yet it seems that many law enforcement officers find a middle ground easily and others make a habit of choosing to push the envelope on probable cause/potentially illegally searching vehicles.

    Perhaps that life and each case should be reviewed individually.

    The scary thing, to me, based on reading your blog posts, Jamison, and hearing other stories about folks getting pulled over and having their vehicles searched, is that I don’t think some law enforcement officers understand even the basics of probable cause much less the subtleties of it. They need to spend 5 minutes reading a find law article on the subject like I did.

    For example, the officer in the case you’ve talked about above seemed to genuinely believe that being irritated at someone justified pulling them over and searching their car. It didn’t matter whether that person had committed a crime or not. The thinking behind that behavior represents the definition of living in a police state. That’s not good.

    And it sounds like either the Prosecutor didn’t review the case at all or essentially agreed with the officer’s logic and all lawyers should be at least vaguely familiar with the 4th amendment or be capable of reading a FindLaw.com article on the subject.

    That’s not great either.

    Thanks again for the food for thought.

  5. Janna: Although I do not agree with everything you posted, I appreciate the fact that you are thinking about it and also that you take the time to comment.

  6. Thanks, Jamison.

    We disagree about at least one other thing – whether Susan L. Burke is brilliant or just hard-working. 🙂

    I also operate under the theory, embraced by a college professor, that if people agree with everything you’ve said you’re probably not saying much. He actually told me that if people aren’t really angry about what your thesis/dissertation asserts, you’re in trouble but I try not to take it that far in online posts even though I posted some provocative ideas above.

    I’m also being wishy-washy about moral trade-offs and know very little about the subject matter (at least I didn’t reference Wikipedia 😉 ) so agreeing with everything I said would be tough.

    Likewise, thank you for taking the time to blog about how legal issues play out in real life. Reading about a subject like probable cause in the abstract doesn’t enable one to even partially get it/feel like thinking about it much, generally, in my experience.

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