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AZ Supreme Court: No Additional Requirement under for Police to Rule out Innocent Driver Conduct

“Though non-criminal explanations for a driver’s conduct might exist, there is no additional requirement [under the Fourth Amendment] that the investigating officer expressly rule them out.”

Close-up of the opening clause of the preamble to the US Constitution.

Many criminal cases start with a traffic stop by police.  However, police and law enforcement officers are not allowed to simply pull drivers over arbitrarily.  To make a stop, police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is in progress. In a recent Arizona Supreme Court decision the Justices examined the reasonable suspicion standard.  The ruling in the case, released June 4, 2015, found that “reasonable suspicion” does not entail officers being required to eliminate possible innocent explanations for suspicious behavior.

Overview and Case Summary  

In this case, sheriff’s deputies testified that they encountered the suspect while he was in his truck.  The truck was stopped at a stop sign at the intersection of an adjoining street where the deputies were approaching.  As they passed the suspects vehicle, one of the deputies observed the suspect “flailing is arms” with closed fists at the passenger sitting in the front seat of the truck.

The Deputy alerted his partner that an assault appeared to be occurring.  As a result they returned to the scene to conduct an investigative stop.

The resulting police traffic stop yielded arrests for possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and aggravated driving under the influence.

During cross-examination the deputy testified, that although it appeared the suspect was punching the passenger, the deputy acknowledged that he did not actually see the contact or the passenger actually being struck.

The defense filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the “arm movements” that police reported was the reason for the stop.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence.   It found that although the defendant’s arm movements alone may not have constituted criminal activity, the facts clearly justified the Deputies’ need to stop and investigate.

On Appeal, the Arizona Appeals Court agreed with the trial court’s rejection to dismiss the evidence, and cited the lower court’s rulings, accepting the police officer’s demonstrated justification for the stop.

The Appeals Court also rejected the argument that the Fourth Amendment requires the police officer in every stop, to show that they took steps to rule out possibilities that the suspect’s conduct was innocent.

The Defendant appealed the denial of suppression of evidence to the Arizona Supreme Court, who agreed to hear the case since it involved recurring cases, and was of statewide importance.

In reviewing the case the AZ Supreme Court recognized that police can stop and detain a person briefly with reasonable suspicion, which requires only a minimal level of objective justification to suspect a crime or suspicious activity is in progress or has occurred.

The Court recognized that “reasonable suspicion’ is more of a “commonsense, nontechnical conception”.

To determine whether an officer has reasonable suspicion for the stop is based on the “totality of the circumstances” or the “whole picture.”  And that from that from the whole picture, officers are required only to obtain a particularized and objective basis to stop someone because they suspect a crime is in progress.

The defendant in this case argued that the officers must consider all factors in a manner that would eliminate most innocent drivers – essentially that officers must take into account any reason for which the suspect may have been engaging in actions that could have been or were lawful.

The Court rejected that argument, and agreed with both the trial court and the court of appeals there is no “additional requirement” under the Fourth Amendment for police to testify that they went through processes that would serve to eliminate innocent conduct by the suspect.

The Supreme Court affirmed both the trial and Appeals court’s decision.  They denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence of the reason for the stop, concluding that the stop did not violate the suspects Fourth Amendment Rights.

Analysis of “Particularized Suspicion” and the Reasonableness Standard

To avoid arbitrary stops, higher courts have ruled that the suspicion justifying the stop must be sufficiently particularized – that is, that they be specific and distinct to that particular suspect.

Reasonable suspicion cannot be based on a “hunch” or generalizations.  For instance, in State v. Gonzalez-Gutierrez, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the fact that a driver was glancing around, gripping his steering wheel tightly and scratching his head did not constitute reasonable suspicion to suspect an immigration violation.

Similarly, it is not enough for an officer to pull a driver over on suspicion of DUI because he or she was leaving an area of town with many bars at 2 a.m.

The officer must have witnessed something like weaving between lanes that would make a reasonable person believe drunk driving was afoot.

In this case, however, the AZ Supreme Court reasoned that if an officer sees activities that are atypical, the standard a court should use is whether the totality of the circumstances could indicate to a reasonable person that criminal activity was taking place.

The fact that most non-criminal activity does not appear suspicious and that the officer must meet this particularized suspicion standard, eliminates stops of too many innocent people.

The Court applied the standard of whether the particular observations of the officers in this case led to a reasonable suspicion that an assault was occurring.

The Court decided this reasonableness standard did not require that officers eliminate the possibility of innocent activity.

It therefore decided that police were within their powers when they pulled the vehicle over, and the officers were not in violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment Rights.

Impacts of the Ruling on Arizona Drivers 

The impact on this case seemingly liberalizes or broadens law enforcement’s authority to make a stop for reasonable suspicion.  However, in effect it does not grant police more power to make a stop.

It simply served to discharge police of the imposition of ruling out innocent conduct in defense of the suspect.   A person’s Fourth Amendment Rights were not diminished.

However, drivers should be aware of their rights, in order to protect them. A driver can jeopardize their own rights and defenses by not being aware of them.

Therefore, it is important to at least be familiar with them, to avoid waiving them unintentionally. This will help protect defenses in the case of constitutional rights violations such as intrusive police actions.

Your Rights at a Police Stop in Arizona 

You have a right to not answer an officer’s questions. While you should hand over your driver’s license and insurance information, you do not have to answer questions about where you’ve been, where you’re going, if you’d had anything to drink or any other questions.

Refusing to answer does not give officers probable cause to arrest you. A word of caution however, is that if you decline to answer questions, you should always let the officer know of your intentions invoke your rights.

Failure to do this may give the officer a perception that you are being uncooperative.  Let them know that your intention is to cooperate by answering necessary information generally expected to be asked at a routine traffic stop.  These might include answering routine questions about license plates, mechanical problems (for example, brake light out) related to vehicle registration, driver’s license, identity and residence. But that you wish to invoke your right to remain silent with regard to any other questions as a constitutional protection, without your attorney present.   

You have a right to refuse requests to search your vehicle. Officers may ask to look in your trunk, in your locked glove compartment and other parts of the car in which you have a reasonable expectation of privacy. They may do so only with your consent or with probable cause. Refusing consent does not give them probable cause.

You have a right to refuse a DUI test, unless police properly obtain a warrant. This includes field sobriety tests, breath tests, blood tests and urine tests. As a result of your refusal, the state will suspend your license for 12 months to two years. However, you can fight the license suspension with the assistance of an attorney.

You also have a right against being stopped indefinitely. If allegedly pulling you over for a traffic violation, police can only detain you for long enough to handle the citation and run your information for warrants. It is your right to ask “Is this stop over?” once you have been handed the citation. If they answer no, they must be detaining you for some other reason.

You should be polite and respectful to law enforcement officers. However, that does not mean your rights can be trampled.

Mesa Defense Attorney for DUI, Drug Charges

Aside from traffic violations, the most common criminal charges that arise out of traffic stops are DUI offenses and drug charges, both of which resulted in this case study.

The defendant was charged with aggravated DUI. Aggravated DUI is a felony. It is charged when a person is alleged to be driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and it is his or her third or subsequent DUI within seven years, his or her license was suspended, a child 15 or younger was in the vehicle or an ignition interlock is installed on the driver’s vehicle.

Aggravated DUI convictions result in:

  • A minimum of four months in prison (eight months if the charge is the fourth or subsequent offense in seven years);
  • Probation for up to 10 years;
  • A fine of $750 or more;
  • Additional assessment of $250;
  • Assessment of $1,500 for the prison construction and operations fund;
  • Assessment of $1,500 for the public safety equipment fund;
  • Court costs;
  • Community restitution;
  • Vehicle impoundment;
  • License revocation for three years;
  • One year with an ignition interlock device installed;
  • Mandatory alcohol or drug screening; and
  • Mandatory alcohol or drug education or treatment program.

Drug charges often arise out of traffic stops when people are pulled over for other reasons, such as a traffic violation, and are accused of possessing drugs. In Evans, the defendant was charged with marijuana possession and paraphernalia possession. Possession of less than two pounds of marijuana is a class 6 felony, punishable by a presumptive sentence of one year in jail. Any more can result in significantly longer sentences.

The defendant was also charged with possession of paraphernalia. Paraphernalia is defined as anything that a person can use to plant, cultivate, ingest or manufacture drugs, among other activities. Possession is a class 6 felony, punishable by a presumptive jail term of one year.

If you have been arrested for any charge after being pulled over in Maricopa County, it is important that you contact a defense attorney right away. Your attorney can challenge whether police had reasonable suspicion among other issues and seek to get your charged reduced or dismissed.

James E. Novak is an experienced criminal defense lawyer and former Maricopa County prosecutor. Contact the Law Office of James E. Novak today for a free consultation to discuss your matter and defense options.

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