If you have had too much to drink before getting behind the wheel, you are potentially putting your life and the lives of others in danger. You also face some harsh legal penalties for driving while impaired. Still, unless you are at a sobriety checkpoint, officers cannot stop your vehicle just to see if your blood alcohol concentration is above Virginia’s 0.08% legal limit.
The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, for officers to search you, arrest you or take your property, they must have probable cause. The legal standard is lower when it comes to vehicular stops. As described in a seminal U.S. Supreme Court case, officers only need reasonable suspicion to stop your vehicle.
Suspicion of unlawful activity
Officers may stop you on suspicion of a DWI if they reasonably believe you are engaging in unlawful conduct. This can be something minor, such as a moving violation, that indicates you are breaking traffic laws. Or, an officer may observe you behaving as a drunk person may behave. For example, you may weave, swerve or drive below the speed limit. Regardless, the officer must articulate a valid reason for stopping your vehicle.
While officers may briefly detain you to either confirm or dispel their suspicions, they need more to arrest you for a DWI in the Old Dominion. That is, to take you into custody, officers must have probable cause, a higher legal standard. Failing a field-sobriety or breath test is probably sufficient. Also, if you admit to consuming alcohol or slur your speech during the stop, an officer likely has probable cause to arrest you for a DWI.
Because the legal standard for a DWI stop is low, even seemingly innocuous behavior may draw officers’ suspicion. Still, if prosecutors have charged you with a drunk driving offense, it is probably a worthwhile exercise to investigate whether police had both reasonable suspicion to stop your vehicle and probable cause to arrest you.