“Reasonable suspicion” for a drunk driving stop refers to the legal standard that law enforcement officers must meet in order to initiate a traffic stop based on their belief that a driver is operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is a lower standard than “probable cause,” which is what is required for an arrest.
Reasonable suspicion is typically based on specific and articulable facts that would lead any reasonable person – especially a police officer with all their training and experience – to believe that a crime is being committed. In this case, it’s anything that might suggest that a driver is impaired by drugs or alcohol.
What sort of things justify a traffic stop and investigation?
Because reasonable suspicion is a really low (and subjective) standard to meet, it doesn’t take much to give rise to a traffic stop and further investigation. An officer might point to things like:
- Observations of erratic driving: This can include swerving, drifting between lanes, abrupt lane changes, excessive speeding, random slowdowns, running red lights or stop signs and driving without headlights after dark.
- Observations of the driver’s behavior: Sometimes a police officer spots an impaired driver before they even get in their car. If a patrol officer happens to see someone stumbling out of a restaurant or bar and struggling to open their car door, for example, that could lead to a traffic stop and further inquiries.
- Aggressive driving: Sometimes alcohol or drugs can make a driver more aggressive, so tailgating, obscene gestures, abrupt lane changes and other aggressive behaviors can also be used to justify a traffic stop and investigation.
- Reports from witnesses: Information from witnesses who observed erratic driving or other signs of impairment can provide reasonable suspicion. If another driver has called the police to indicate they’re concerned a drunk driver is on the loose, the police may use that to stop any vehicle that meets the given description.
It’s important to remember that reasonable suspicion isn’t enough to lead to an arrest – although whatever an officer sees that prompts the traffic stop may be part of the pile of evidence that eventually goes that way. It’s also wise to remember that an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” may not pass muster with the courts, and an illegal traffic stop can be the basis for a dismissed charge. Finally, if you’re currently facing drunk driving allegations, it’s wisest to explore all your defense options as soon as possible.