When dealing with a DWI or drunk driving case, one of the most important determinations that the court must make is whether the defendant's constitutional rights were violated in any way. Protection from unlimited search and seizure is one of our most important rights, and it can sometimes play a role in criminal defense cases. If, for instance, a police officer performs a traffic stop or searches a vehicle without establishing probable cause, he or she may have violated the driver's Fourth Amendment rights.
This was the question at issue in the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which recently had to determine whether a fire truck could legally pull over a suspected drunk driver.
The traffic stop occurred in May 2011. On the way back from an emergency call, a fireman noticed a Mercedes driving slowly but erratically. He phoned police, but he feared that the car could cause an accident before police arrived. So he activated the fire truck's emergency lights and pulled the Mercedes over.
The fireman offered to have one of his men park the driver's car for her, and suggested that she call one of her friends to come and pick her up. The driver agreed, but then drove away. Police later arrested her on another street.
The woman was charged with DWI, but at her trial she contended that the evidence against her should be thrown out of court because she was subjected to an illegal traffic stop. The question was eventually sent to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Judges were split on their opinion on the legal quandary. On one side, some felt that the fireman had acted within his rights as a citizen, and that the traffic stop was legitimate. On the other hand, some felt that the fireman had used the authority given to him by the state during his traffic stop, and that he had been "acting in his official capacity as a fireman" on the night in question. Since firemen cannot perform traffic stops as part of their normal duties, these judges felt the stop was unconstitutional.
For now, the sticky legal question will remain unanswered. The Court of Appeals sent the case back down to the lower court for further investigation into the events and motivations on the night of the traffic stop.
Source: The Herald-Sun, "Did firefighter have the right to stop a suspected drunk driver?" Beth Velliquette, Sep. 03, 2013