In a recent DUI case south of Jacksonville, Florida, a police officer stopped the defendant for driving out of control and in an abnormal driving pattern. More specifically, the police officer testified that the defendant was driving back and forth in his lane and striking the lane markers. At some point, after driving over to the divided white lines, the defendant abruptly swerved back towards the middle of the lane. However, the driver never drove over into the adjacent lane. The police officer concluded that the driver was impaired and pulled him over allegedly to see if he was fine to continue driving. After the traffic stop, the police officer conducted a DUI investigation, had the driver perform field sobriety tests and arrested him for DUI.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress evidence of the police officer’s observations of impairment and the results of the police officer’s field sobriety examination. The criminal defense attorney argued that there was no actual traffic violation so the police officer did not have a legal basis to pull over the defendant.
Ordinarily, a police officer may only conduct a traffic stop of a defendant, whether to write a traffic ticket or investigate for a DUI, if the police officer observes the driver commit a traffic violation. However, there are exceptions to this general rule. One exception is referred to as the community caretaker doctrine in Florida. This says that a police officer may stop a vehicle without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity if the officer believes it is necessary to protect public safety. A police officer can stop a driver if he/she observes abnormal driving if there is reason to believe the driver may be ill, tired or impaired and a risk to others on the road. These traffic stops are allegedly unrelated to a criminal investigation, but they can turn into a DUI or other criminal investigation if the police officer observes signs of impairment from alcohol and/or drugs or other evidence of criminal activity.
When a driver is weaving within his/her lane of travel, no traffic laws are being broken. If no traffic laws are being broken, the police officer generally cannot pull the driver over. However, Florida law does allow for an exception where the police officer observes the driver weaving within his/her lane even if there is no immediate threat to other vehicles or pedestrians. If the police officer observes abnormal driving by the driver that he/she reasonably believes could cause a safety hazard to others, the police officer may pull that driver over to investigate whether the driver has some issue preventing him/her from driving safely. If the driver turns out to be impaired from alcohol and/or drugs, the police officer may be permitted to initiate a DUI investigation and arrest the driver for DUI.