The Traffic stop in Michigan DUI, Criminal and License Cases

Whether it’s a drunk driving (DUI), driver’s license restoration, driving while license suspended or revoked, or even a drug possession or indecent exposure charge, the overwhelming majority of the cases I handle can trace their beginnings to the operation of a motor vehicle. Criminal and driver’s license cases as a result of something that was done in or with a car is something that I deal with every day, and almost all day long. A traffic stop can give rise to all kinds of legal issues (the most important of which is called “reasonable suspicion“), but the reality is that, beyond those issues, almost everyone I represent has found him or herself in trouble for something related to a vehicle. In driver’s license restoration cases, I help get somebody back into the driver’s seat. In all other situations, I help someone get out of trouble. In this brief article, I’ll take a step away from my usual, informational installment and take a look at things from my side of the table, as the lawyer.

Thumbnail image for MSP Fall 1.2.jpgConsider this: A somewhat niche and unique aspect of my practice concentrates in indecent exposure cases. Almost every exposure case that I handle has taken place in a car. And while I’ve had a few “drunk boating” cases in my career, with but a few exceptions, every DUI case that has ever come into my office originated in a 4-wheeled vehicle. In today’s world, everyone has a cellphone. The police can, and often do get a real time report of illegal activity (from a drunk driver to a driver exposing himself) from a cell phone tip. I’ve had countless cases where a tipster has remained on the phone so the police could locate a drunk driver as the caller followed him or her. “Suspicious activity” calls normally get a pretty quick police response, as well, especially in the suburbs. When you’re 19, you might wonder why anyone would be concerned about your car driving around the same neighborhood at 1 in the morning; when you’re a homeowner, you wonder what that car is up to, and when you’re the police officer who stops the car and finds a bunch of kids with alcohol and/or marijuana, you wonder how they could be so clueless.

Of course, there are legal issues involved in the pulling over of motor vehicles, but the real world truth is that very few cases ever get tossed out of Metro-Detroit courts for an illegal traffic stop. Here is the big question I get asked all the time: “Don’t the police need probable cause to pull me over?” The answer, and it may surprise you, is “No.” The police merely need a “reasonable suspicion” to pull someone over. Once you’re pulled over, they’ll need probable cause to arrest you for something, but that’s a whole different matter. The point here is that the law does not require an officer have “probable cause” to pull over a vehicle. Everything that happens thereafter, however, flows from that stop…

Obviously, in the context of a driver’s license appeal, all this is ancient history. To win your license back you must prove that you’re sober, have been sober for a while, and have the commitment and tools to remain sober for life. But this still all relates back to something important about DUI cases, and really almost any case that begins with a traffic stop. We expect our police to be smart enough to solve robbery and murder cases, to figure out “who dunnit,” and otherwise protect us from danger. Yet it is ridiculous that as much as we expect from them, we somehow think these same professionals don’t have the skills to tell when a person has been drinking or is high, or otherwise up to something? Think about it this way: How competent would any particular police officer be if he or she pulled over someone who was legally drunk and couldn’t figure that out?

This comes up when people whose BAC results are over (sometimes a lot over) the legal limit will argue that they did just fine on the field sobriety tests. In many of these cases, we find that the person’s memory is a bit off, because standard practice in my office is to obtain the police car video. Probably the most common reaction I get when anyone begins watching their arrest is an embarrassed request: “Turn it off; I’ve seen enough.” Sure, we do find some gems once in a while regarding the stop or what followed thereafter, and that’s why I get the video in the first place. Otherwise, I’d just be wasting money and time. However, by and large, the police usually get it right, or at least right enough for “the law.” That is not good news, though, when you were the person arrested.

Having read countless (and here I mean specifically so many that I could not add them all up) police reports, watched endless dash-cam videos and handled thousands upon thousands of cases that all began with a traffic stop, I’ve seen just about everything you can imagine in terms of how vehicles wind up getting pulled over. In assessing my own career of more than 25 years (so far – it seems that doctors, dentists and lawyers answer more of a professional calling rather than have a “job,” so we tend to love what we do and keep at it for 40 or more years), I have developed a significant expertise in cases that begin with a traffic stop. This becomes all the more clear when I speak with other lawyers who handle other kinds of criminal cases. I don’t do rape, murder cases or other cases like that. In fact, I seldom, if ever, find myself handling any kind of case that does not trace its roots to a motor vehicle. The resultant well of that cumulative experience runs very deep.

What’s the take-away here? Well, if your case has anything to do with driving, I can help, and often better than anyone. In DUI cases, beyond a law degree, I bring a post-graduate education in the field of addiction studies. This means I can protect you in ways you probably can’t imagine. In license restoration cases, if you’ve really quit drinking, I’ll not only get you back on the road, I’ll guarantee it. If you’ve been charged with any other driving offense, I know nuances of Michigan’s Motor Vehicle Code that can spare you trouble right now, and problems down the road that many other people don’t even know about.