Constitutional Issues in DC DUI Cases 

Law enforcement is not always perfect. Sometimes officers make errors and those errors can have major consequences for the people they are arresting. It is not completely uncommon to discover that there are constitutional issues in DC DUI cases. In fact, these issues can serve as the basis for a solid DUI defense especially if you work with a skilled attorney who knows what they are doing. If you face a DUI charge and you believe there are constitutional issues with your case, contact a lawyer who can fight for you and use those issues to bolster your case.

Officer Interactions

One of the most common constitutional issues in DC DUI cases focuses on the basis for the police officer’s stop and interaction with the person charged with a DUI. If there was no accident that requires an officer to respond because of the possibilities of injuries and to take a report. It is important to question the person was stopped, and what reason they had to believe that the defendant was impaired by drugs. The police officer must have probable cause to stop somebody. They must be able to substantiate the reason they came into contact with the person, made them pull over, and engaged in an investigation of them.

Most often there is an alleged traffic violation such as proceeding through a red light. Speeding is another common reason that people are pulled over. The police officer must substantiate the reason. They cannot simply pull somebody over because it is three in the morning and they want to see what is up. Police officers are trained to document the reason they pull someone over. They must have a legitimate and reasonable basis for making the traffic stop. This issue is closely examined in every DUI case to ensure that no constitutional rights are infringed.

Impact of Violations on a Case

If the police violate an individual’s constitutional right, the consequence of that violation could be the suppression of any evidence obtained. The evidence is excluded from the case against the person. If the government relies primarily on evidence obtained through a search deemed to be unconstitutional, they are going to have significant problems in successfully prosecuting the person.

Constitutional issues with regard to an individual’s statements can have an impact on a DUI case. The person made statements when they were questioned while under arrest, but they were not read their Miranda rights and did not validly waive those rights. Those statements are in violation of the Fifth Amendment and could be excluded from the case which can greatly weaken the prosecution’s case.

Miranda Rights

The facts of a particular case might bring up other constitutional issues in DC DUI cases such as the police trying to use alleged admissions by the person against them. The defense lawyer must analyze whether the person was in custody and being questioned. If that is the case, the question becomes whether the police properly advised the person of their Miranda rights.

One important issue unfortunately that does not apply to a DUI investigation is that the police do not read Miranda rights to an individual while they are initially interviewing them when conducting their initial DUI investigation. If the officer asks the person to get out of the car and engages the person in a conversation about where and when they were drinking and how much they had, that can be problematic. The courts consider that the person is not in detention in that situation.

Therefore, there is no requirement for the police officer to read the person’s Miranda rights to them. The person does not have the option to waive those rights to answer those questions and then the answers are used against them. Once the individual is arrested and the police go forward with further interviewing and questioning, the police officer must read the Miranda rights and obtain a valid waiver to be able to use answers the person might give against them at trial.

Fourth Amendment Protections in DUI Cases

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. When the police have probable cause to stop a person, they must also have probable cause to search a person or they are in violation of Fourth Amendment protections. In a DUI case, the issue is the reason the police came into contact with the person. If they pulled a driver over, there must be a valid reason because a police officer is not allowed to pull somebody over based on the color of their skin, the time of day, or the type of vehicle in certain neighborhoods.

Example

If a police officer observes a driver fail to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, they may pull them over and hope to engage them in a conversation if they do not have a reasonable basis to believe that the individual is engaged in an unlawful activity. In other words, the driver does not smell like alcohol and does not appear to have been drinking.

If there is nothing in plain view and the police officer searches the vehicle without the consent of the driver, their search could be challenged if they find some kind of contraband. This comes up in many cases where drugs or alcohol are found in vehicles and were not in plain view. The police must justify their basis for searching that vehicle.

Judges Ruling on Cases

In the District of Columbia Superior Court where a DUI case is prosecuted, the trial judge is bound by precedent as set by the DC Court of Appeals, the equivalent of a state-level appellate court. Constitutional issues in DC DUI cases are often federal in nature because they come from the United States Constitution. At the federal level, the court can look to the United States Court of Appeals or the DC circuit court. Beyond that, the court looks to the precedent set by the case law from the United States Supreme Court.

The DC Superior Court must be mindful of possible violations of the person’s constitutional rights because an individual’s rights are paramount in the criminal justice system and in society in general. The issues that are most heavily considered are the ones the appellate courts look most carefully upon. A person can expect that a trial judge in DC Superior Court takes any question of the possible violation of an individual’s constitutional rights most seriously.

Interpretation of Constitution

Courts, including DC Superior Court, are bound to follow precedent set by other courts. The first source of analysis is what the Constitution provides. In the past two hundred years, innumerable court cases and appellate cases interpreted various aspects and clauses of the Constitution and its amendments. A court is bound by the precedent set by previous cases from the appellate courts that sit above it. In the District, that is the DC Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. Those are the two primary sources of the interpretation of the Constitution the DC Superior Court must follow when handling a DC case.