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Probable cause and signs of a drunk driver

Many people don't realize that police officers cannot pull you over without reason. You must break a traffic law or give some outward sign that a stop is necessary.

This is especially important when considering the legalities of a drunk driving stop. Police have seen the statistics. They know that most drunk drivers are out at night. They know that holidays and weekends increase those odds.

Even so, an officer cannot just randomly pull drivers over on a weekend night near a holiday, assuming he's statistically more likely to find a drunk driver. He may be right, but those stops may be illegal. Police need probable cause.

Reasons for the stop

So, what are the police looking for? What signs tell them you may be intoxicated? A few examples include:

  • Making an illegal turn.
  • Driving right down the center of the road, with one tire on either side of the line.
  • Braking too often and not driving smoothly.
  • Driving very erratically and doing things that do not make sense.
  • Driving very slowly. Some drunk drivers speed, but others slow down to try to stay in control.
  • Drifting all over the road and switching lanes at random.
  • Stopping without a stop sign or any other reason.
  • Almost crashing into parked cars, mailboxes, pedestrians or anything else near the road.
  • Going the wrong way down the road.
  • Not turning on the headlights at night.
  • Driving on the shoulder.
  • Tailgating the next car in the lane.
  • Signaling and then turning in the opposite direction.
  • Turning in a very wide fashion, perhaps almost leaving the road and entering the shoulder.

Essentially, if it looks like you are not entirely in control of your vehicle, police may wonder if you are actually intoxicated behind the wheel. Seeing a simple mistake is not enough for an arrest on the spot, but it may be enough for a stop. Then, police can make an arrest if they see other signs that you are drunk, or if you fail the field sobriety tests or the Breathalyzer.

Additional reasons

The other thing you should note is that police do have a lot of leeway when it comes to traffic stops. They can pull you over for something that is completely unrelated and then determine you have been drinking when they talk to you.

For instance, maybe you have a broken headlight. Perhaps you have something hanging from your mirror that obstructs your vision. Maybe your license plate appears outdated because you forgot to put on the new sticker or your turn signal broke so that the light doesn't flash even when you turn it on. These are minor infractions, but they can trigger a traffic stop.

If that stop leads to a DUI arrest, make sure you understand all of the options that you have moving forward.

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Jack P. Sherman, Attorney at Law
200 Jefferson Ave.
Suite 700
Memphis, TN 38103

Phone: 901-646-4270
Phone: 901-233-3474
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