Normally, a police officer must have “probable cause” to arrest someone on suspicion of DWI or drunk driving. If the officer does not have probable cause, then the arrest is illegal. But can a judge determine probable cause existed even if the arresting officer later admits in court that he did not?
This may seem like an odd question but, it was one recently addressed by the Texas 14th District Court of Appeals here in Houston. And a split three-judge panel decided that yes–in fact, a judge is free to find probable cause existed for an arrest even after the officer acknowledged they thought they lacked it.
Probable Cause and the Court of Appeals
The unusual events leading up to this case were as follows. A police officer was driving his vehicle with lights and sirens down a street in downtown Houston. The lights and sirens indicated the officer was responding to an emergency. The defendant accidentally collided with the officer when she attempted to change into his lane.
Following the collision, the officer exited his vehicle and began yelling “with profanity” at the defendant, according to a video recording taken by another officer at the scene. According to the officer, he observed the defendant had a “distant stare” and displayed other possible signs of intoxication. The officer then immediately placed the defendant under arrest without conducting any field sobriety tests.
Subsequent testing following the arrest found the defendant had a blood-alcohol level that exceeded the legal limit. Prosecutors charged the defendant with misdemeanor DWI. A jury convicted her on that charge, and the judge issued a sentence of 180 days in jail, which the court then suspended in favor of community supervision (probation).
On appeal to the 14th District, the defendant argued the officer lacked probable cause to arrest her for DWI in this first place, thereby making any subsequent evidence of drunk driving constitutionally inadmissible. Indeed, the officer admitted in court he did not have probable cause of any offense when he placed the defendant in handcuffs.
Nevertheless, 2 of the 3 judges on the 14th District panel concluded that regardless of the officer’s subjective beliefs, an objective consideration of the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding the defendant’s arrest led to the conclusion that probable cause did exist. The majority reasoned that “just as the trial court is entitled to disregard a peace officer’s legal conclusion that he or she had probable cause to arrest an individual, the trial court is free to disregard a peace officer’s legal conclusion that he or she did not have probable cause.” (Italics in original)
The dissenting judge, however, said the officer’s admission should have been “controlling” and thus led to a finding the defendant’s arrest was illegal. The dissent cautioned that under the majority’s reasoning, law enforcement was effectively authorized to arrest people based on “inarticulate hunches.”
Contact Houston DWI Lawyer Tad A. Nelson Today
Drunk driving cases often raise complex legal and factual questions that need to be resolved in court. An experienced Houston DWI lawyer can provide you with critical advice and representation. So if you are facing a DWI or drunk driving charge, contact Tad A. Nelson today to schedule a consultation or call (281) 280-0100.