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MN DWI Stop

“Woop Ba-Woop Woop Wooop!” What the..? Is that a cop? Is it meant for me? What did I do? I wasn’t speeding. What is your first thought when you hear the dreaded wail of your friendly neighborhood police cruiser and realize it is for you?

Wondering why a cop pulled you over is typically your first thought. At some point later you may think “can they stop me for that?”

When determining the validity of traffic stops, Minnesota courts will evaluate whether law enforcement had “reasonable suspicion” to make the stop, or seizure, in the first place. Importantly, reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause. Courts define reasonable suspicion as: specific and articulable facts combined with rational inferences from those facts that someone has, is, or is about to commit a crime. Basically, did the cops have a good reason to detain you?

Reasonable suspicion is such a low standard that Minnesota courts frequently cite that someone does not even need to be violating a traffic law to be stopped. As long as the stop is not based on a “mere whim.”

In DWI cases, common bases for initial seizures include: speeding, crossing the fog line, weaving, expired tabs, stopping just past a stop sign, you name it. In some cases, just sitting in your car in an empty parking lot where there is a history of criminal conduct may be enough. Last week, in State v. Hegwood, the Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed a similar situation.

In Hegwood, the court of appeals reversed an Olmsted County District Court Judge’s decision to deny a motion to suppress evidence obtained after the traffic stop based on a fourth amendment challenge to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The court of appeals held the police officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Hegwood’s vehicle after he turned from a highway into the parking lot of a business closed for the night. In other words, the police officer did not have a good reason to stop Hegwood’s vehicle.

In its argument, the prosecution relied upon two cases: Uber and Olmscheid. In those cases, there was a history of recent burglaries and thefts where the vehicles in question were spotted. But, in Hegwood, the prosecution could not provide any evidence of recent criminal activity near the parking lot Hegwood stopped his vehicle. Additionally, the officer testified that there was “nothing” suspicious about Hegwood’s vehicle before he turned into the empty parking lot. The prosecution failed to articulate what made Hegwood’s actions reasonably suspicious. Just turning into an empty parking lot where there is no indication of recent criminal activity is simply not enough to meet the standard of reasonable suspicion.

I often talk with people charged with DWI that ask me whether they should just go in to court on their own and plead guilty. In Hegwood’s case, he benefited tremendously from legal counsel. His lawyer knew what motions to file; how to cross examine the police officer; and properly preserved the issue for appeal. On some level, maybe Hegwood felt like he should take responsibility for what happened. But to protect his rights, he had a lawyer review his case and identify the issues. As the saying goes, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – Wayne Gretzky.

Robert H. Ambrose is a DWI / DUI lawyer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The American Institute of DUI / DWI Attorneys named him a “Ten Best” DWI Attorney in the state of Minnesota for Client Satisfaction. He also has a Lead Counsel Rating in Drunk Driving Defense.

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