Evidence Suppressed in State College DUI Case – Illegal Traffic Stop

The law applies to everyone, including police officer when performing their duties and conducting investigations.  If the police violate a person’s constitutional rights during an investigation, then the law requires that evidence seized as a result of the violation must be suppressed and cannot be used at future court proceedings.  It is a simple concept, the police cannot break the law when collecting evidence, and if they do, the law requires that all evidence found as a result of the illegality must be suppressed.  While some people argue that suppression means that a person “got off on a technicality,” the technicality at play is often a violation of a person’s constitutional rights.  I disagree that a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution, the documents upon which our government is based, can be considered a mere “technicality.”  Most police officers do NOT knowingly violate a person’s rights.  Most police officers are NOT bad or dishonest people that will do whatever it takes to investigate and prosecute crimes.  Mistakes are made, and it is the job of lawyers to notice the mistake, file a motion, and then have a judge decide whether or not the mistake violated the person’s rights.

Unconstitutional Traffic Stop

In a recent DUI case, a State College police officer conducted a routine traffic stop based upon a belief that the driver was speeding.  The officer observed the driver pass his location, the officer believed that the driver was speeding, so the officer followed the driver for approximately four miles to monitor the driving.  The officer clocked the driver’s speed at 53.7 miles per hour in a posted 45 mile per hour zone.  The officer conducted a traffic stop, suspected that the person was driving under the influence, and the officer’s investigation ultimately led to the filing of DUI charges.

Sounds like an open and shut case of speeding.  The problem for the officer is that manner in which he gauged the speed was basically by measuring the elapsed time between two points.  Local police officers are not permitted to use radar guns.  When speed is determined in the manner used in this case, Pennsylvania law states that a person cannot be convicted of speeding in a 55 mile per hour zone unless the person exceeds the speed limit by less than 10 miles per hour.  The speed limit in this case was 45 miles per hour, so the driver had to be driving at least 55 miles per hour in order to be guilty of speeding.  The man was smart enough to hire an experienced State College DUI attorney, and the attorney argued that the traffic stop was illegal because the officer did not have probable cause to believe that the driver was exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 miles per hours.  The DUI lawyer argued that if the traffic stop was unconstitutional, then all evidence obtained thereafter must be suppressed.

Ignorance of the Law is Not a Defense

The prosecutor tried to argue that the officer was not aware that the law required a person to be traveling more than 10 miles per hour over the limit in this situation in order to be guilty of speeding.  The prosecutor argued that the officer had made a good faith mistake and should not be punished with the suppression of evidence.  The problem with this argument is that the Pennsylvania courts have routinely rejected the “good faith exception,” so the Centre County judge also rejected this argument.  The officer’s ignorance of the law did not justify his actions.  The judge also stated that minor swerving within a person’s lane of travel is not illegal.  Crossing over the travel lines can be a violation and would normally give the officer a reason to stop the vehicle and investigate.  But this driver did not cross over any lanes of travel and was only observed to be weaving within his lane.  Ultimately, the judge agreed with the DUI lawyer, ruled that the traffic stop violated the driver’s constitutional rights, and the judge suppressed the evidence found as a result of the traffic stop.

Driving Under the Influence is a crime in Pennsylvania that often leads to accidents that injure and may even kill innocent people.  Pennsylvania takes these cases seriously and has laws that impose severe mandatory minimum sentences in DUI cases.  While society must aggressively prosecute these cases to protect the public, that does not mean that constitutional rights can be violated in the process.  A violation of the DUI law cannot supersede the protections set forth in our constitutions.