In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut upheld a trial court’s decision that police officers had reasonable and articulable suspicion to pull over a defendant they believed was driving under the influence of alcohol.
This case arose from an incident that occurred at approximately 10:30pm on July 16, 2006. Two citizens (informants) were driving in their car when they observed a dark SUV driven poorly by the defendant. They decided to follow, and then called police because they were concerned for the safety of the public and the defendant. The informants provided dispatch with a description of the defendant’s vehicle, the direction he was traveling, and the following observations: he frequently swerved and crossed the center yellow line, weaved in and out of the travel lane, and nearly collided with another vehicle. Dispatch relayed this information to a nearby patrol car, which saw the defendant’s car stopped at a green light and driving only 15 miles per hour (mph) in a 40mph zone. After spotting the informants pointing to the defendant’s vehicle, the officers pulled him over. The defendant was later charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) of alcohol in violation of State law.
The defendant submitted a motion to suppress evidence, which the trial court denied. It found that officers had at least “reasonable suspicion to believe the defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol,” given the informants’ information and the police officers’ personal observations. The defendant entered a conditional plea of nolo contendere, and upon conviction and sentencing, he appealed. The defendant argued that the record did not have enough corroborative evidence to establish a reasonable and articulable suspicion to pull him over. He further argued that the trial court improperly found that the stop was based, in part, on the police officers’ observations of his erratic driving.
When a police officer conducts an investigatory stop or seizure, he must have a “reasonable and articulable suspicion at the time the seizure occurred.” To determine whether such suspicion exists, a reviewing court will determine whether the trial court’s factual findings were clearly erroneous, and whether the conclusion based on those findings was legally correct. This decision relies on the totality of the circumstances, and the facts of a case are reviewed objectively. In the context of citizen informants, our State Supreme Court has held that there are situations involving an anonymous tip which, with police corroboration, “exhibits sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make an investigatory stop.” Identifiable citizen informers are presumptively reliable because they can easily be located and held accountable if they provide false information to police.
In this case, the Appellate Court stated that in determining whether the police officers had a reasonable and articulable suspicion, the trial court did not have to rely on only their observations. It noted that the trial court declared the informants to be “identifiable citizen informant[s],” a finding with which the Appellate Court did not disagree. The Court described the extensive corroboration of the informants’ information by police officers, and noted that the police were “not required to wait for erratic driving or an accident to occur before pulling over the defendant.” Therefore, the Court found the presence of reasonable and articulable suspicion, and that the trial court did not commit clear error in their findings.
When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence), an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.
Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.