Reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is generally necessary for a police officer to use authority to compel a warrantless stop or detention of an individual. In the recent Tennessee case of State v Wessels, M2012-01969-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 9-20-2013), the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that a police officer who claimed to smell alcohol on a driver had reasonable suspicion to detain the driver after a traffic stop to conduct a DUI investigation.
In the Wessels case, the driver was initially stopped for running a red light. The police officer conducting the initial stop then decided to detain the driver further, awaiting the arrival of other officers, to ask the driver to exit the vehicle for a DUI investigation. The driver was detained for approximately thirteen minutes before being asked to perform field sobriety tests. She was also later given a breathalyzer which indicated a blood alcohol content of .115. After a bench trial led to a conviction, the driver appealed, arguing that the evidence should have been excluded due to an unreasonable detention following the initial traffic stop. After the purpose for the initial traffic stop had concluded, further reasonable suspicion or probable cause would be needed to continue to detain the driver.
The police officer initiating the stop claimed to have smelled alcohol on the driver, though the officer may not have noted that when summoning other officers to scene. She wanted other officers present before asking the driver to exit the vehicle. The trial court specifically accredited the officer’s testimony that the driver smelled as if she had been drinking alcohol. The determination of the credibility of witnesses is generally a matter left to the trial court. Once concluding the driver smelled of alcohol, that created reasonable suspicion for a brief investigation. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the trial court ruling that the length of the detention in this case was reasonable to further investigate the driver’s sobriety.
For more information on what facts may create reasonable suspicion for detention and additional investigation, contact Hindman & Associates.