In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut considered whether a police officer lacked a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the defendant was driving under the influence and impermissibly prolonged a traffic stop.
This case arose from an incident that occurred at 1:21am on April 13, 2007. A state trooper on routine patrol was driving along Route 72 in New Britain when he observed a vehicle rapidly accelerating as it entered the highway. The trooper clocked the speed of this vehicle at approximately 100mph, despite a 55mph posted speed limit, and he initiated a traffic stop, though the driver parked his car on an exit ramp with part of it protruding into the travel lane. For his own safety, the trooper approached the passenger side of the car and asked the driver, who was later identified as the defendant, to provide his license, registration, and proof of insurance. The officer inquired whether he consumed any alcohol that night, to which the defendant replied he had not.
The trooper validated the documents and shortly thereafter returned to the defendant’s car, unsure whether to arrest the defendant or issue a summons for reckless driving. The trooper asked the defendant to exit his car and immediately noticed the odor of alcohol and the defendant’s bloodshot, glassy eyes. The defendant admitted to drinking two alcoholic beverages, so the trooper administered several field sobriety tests and subsequently arrested him. The entire incident lasted no more than twenty-five minutes.
The defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) in violation of § 14-227a. He filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained after the initial traffic stop, arguing that the trooper did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion “to take any action at that point other than ticketing or arresting [him] for reckless driving.” The trial court denied the motion, stating that when the trooper had not yet completed the initial purpose of the traffic stop. Therefore, the extension of the stop was not unlawful. The defendant entered into a conditional plea of nolo contendere, then appealed.
A police officer has authority to briefly stop a suspicious person and make “reasonable inquiries” to confirm or dispel his suspicions of potential criminal activity. There is no bright-line limitation on the duration of this stop, and an officer may inquire about matters unrelated to the traffic stop itself “so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend [its] duration.” In light of the need to protect an officer, asking a driver to exit his vehicle is a comparatively minimal intrusion on his personal liberty.
In this case, the Appellate Court found that the trooper did not unlawfully extend the traffic stop. The duration, from initial encounter to arrest, was approximately twenty-five minutes, and the trooper’s actions during this time were “all reasonable as they related to the traffic stop itself.” The trooper acted properly in asking the defendant to exit his vehicle: the burden on the defendant’s individual liberty was minimal compared to asking the trooper to stand in an exit ramp travel lane in the middle of the night. In addition, the trooper had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the defendant was intoxicated, so conducting the field sobriety tests in this situation was proper. Therefore, the Appellate Court affirmed judgment.
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.