As most people probably know, if you’re driving home from the Sixth Street area late at night, you’re under suspicion from Austin’s DWI task force, which camps out at the heavily trafficked roads that lead away from the bar district. And now, based on a recent Court of Criminal Appeals ruling in Foster v. State, you can get pulled over even if you haven’t committed a traffic offense.
As a criminal defense attorney, one of my first questions of a client charged with DWI is: “Why did the cop pull you over?” Until recently, the answer almost always involved some type traffic offense, such as speeding, running a red light, expired inspection or registration, taillight out, etc. However, check out the facts of Foster:
A police officer was stopped at a red light in the right lane of West Sixth Street. Foster’s truck drove up very close to the back of the officer’s vehicle, and then the truck made a “revving” sound. The officer also described the truck as lurching forward, possibly to try to turn into the lane to the left of the officer. The officer then initiated a traffic stop of Foster’s truck despite the fact that Foster hadn’t violated any traffic laws. Foster then failed sobriety tests and was arrested for DWI.
The Court of Criminal Appeals found that the stop was validly supported by reasonable suspicion, which is the constitutional standard for such investigatory detentions. (Note: police officers need “probable cause” to arrest a person, but only “reasonable suspicion” to temporarily detain someone in order to investigate criminal activity). According to the court, the officer validly took into account the time of day and location in determining whether there was reasonable suspicion to detain Foster.
Here, the officer testified that based on his training and experience, people leaving the Sixth Street bar district late at night are likely to be intoxicated. When this circumstance is combined with Foster’s “erratic driving,” the Court found that was enough to pull him over. On the other hand, if Foster’s driving behavior had occurred on a residential street during the light of day, an officer would probably not have been able to validly pull him over because such driving behavior, in isolation, doesn’t amount to reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Of course, Foster’s an idiot for driving so aggressively in an area known to be patrolled by cops late at night. But until now, most attorneys would’ve agreed that he couldn’t be pulled over unless he committed a traffic offense. Now, that’s changed. And if you drive near Sixth Street at night, you’re already under suspicion; if you do anything that’s conceivably “erratic,” you’ll likely be the subject of a DWI investigation.
The best advice is to take a taxi or designate a sober driver in order to avoid an accident or police contact.