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NC Court of Appeals' ruling in DWI case raises questions

As we discussed in our last blog, a police officer who pulls a driver over must have reasonable suspicion to believe that a driver has committed a crime. In cases where this requirement isn't met, a defense attorney will fight to get any criminal charges that may follow as a result of the traffic stop dismissed. However, according to a recent ruling by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, evidence collected in an unconstitutional traffic stop may still be used as justification to revoke an individual's driver's license in an Administrative Hearing at NCDMV.

In January of 2013, a 34-year-old North Carolina school teacher was driving her vehicle when a police officer, acting on an anonymous tip of erratic driving, began following her. The officer did not witness anything unusual, but decided to pull the driver over after witnessing the car make what he described as a "slight cross of the center line."  The evidence was suppressed in the CRIMINAL case which resulted in a dismissal of that criminal proceeding, but the Court Of Appeals held that it could be used nonetheless in a CIVIL hearing in DMV and support the revocation of her license for the Refusal of the chemical test. 

At that time the police officer reported the driver displayed signs of possible intoxication including a smell of alcohol and swaying upon exiting the vehicle. The police report also indicates that the woman did not pass a series of field sobriety tests. When asked to submit to a Breathalyzer test, the driver refused both at the scene of the traffic stop and again after she was officially arrested and charged with DWI.

The criminal charges against the 34 year old were subsequently dismissed after it was determined that, lacking reasonable suspicion, the police officer violated the woman's Fourth Amendment rights. However the Department of Motor Vehicles continued with a civil hearing against the woman based upon her refusal of the Breathalyzer test.

The DMV hearing resulted in a 12-month driver's license suspension. While the woman appealed the DMV's decision, citing the fact that the same evidence was deemed inadmissible in her criminal case, the appellate court ruled that the DMV's decision can stand as "the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rules does not apply to civil proceedings."

It's not yet clear whether the case will again be appealed. If so, the North Carolina Supreme Court will have the final say. This case illustrates the complex nature of DWI cases and why individuals facing drunk driving charges need a legal advocate to fight for their rights.

Source: Winston-Salem Journal, "Court: Evidence tossed out in DWI case can be used to revoke license," Michael Hewlett, Feb. 6 2015

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