The case involved driver, Darrell Keck, who was traveling about 43 mph on a gravel road in Putnam County when Sheriff's Deputy Terry Smith began following him. Smith witnessed the driver traveling "down the middle of the roadway" for about a quarter of a mile before he initiated a traffic stop. The officer also witnessed the driver coming to a full stop before turning left onto a two-way road with no center line.
During the stop, Deputy Smith noticed Keck's eyes were bloodshot and he smelled alcohol on his breath. He also observed an open case of beer in the front seat with several cans missing. After Keck admitted drinking three beers that night, Keck conducted three sobriety tests. Keck failed two of them, so the officer conducted a breath test, which showed a breath-alcohol level of 0.14. Keck was handcuffed and hauled off to jail.
Keck was charged with two misdemeanors: operating a vehicle while intoxicated and operating over the legal limit.
Keck's attorney immediately asked the court to suppress the evidence against him, stating that no traffic laws were broken that initiated the stop. The defendant argued that the road was gravel and had large "chuckholes" that made it impossible to drive in the right-hand area of the roadway "without hitting every hole in the road."
The court granted the defendant's motion:
"Judicial Notice of the condition of the County's roads throughout Putnam County. Because of the poor road conditions, the Court finds it wholly unreasonable to expect motorists in Putnam County to take a perfectly straight course, on the far right side of a roadway riddled with potholes in the absence of oncoming traffic...Evasive action, including possibly driving left-of-center has become a necessity with the current conditions of our County Roads."That state appealed that ruling and lost, so they took the case to the Supreme Court and the justices unanimously affirmed the lower court ruling stating that the trial court correctly granted Keck's Motion to Suppress.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court stated that "The Fourth Amendment guarantees: The right of the peole to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."In its ruling, the Court made the following interesting observations:
"Our jurisprudence reflects two types of police encounters that implicate Fourth Amendment protection: the investigatory stop and the custodial arrest. An investigatory stop is generally brief in duration and is constitutionally permissible so long as the enforcement officer 'has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity 'may be afoot.' The custodial arrest constitutes a greater restriction upon the subject's liberty and requires a commensurately greater justification: probable cause.The first question we face is whether Deputy Smith had reasonable suspicion to support a brief investigatory stop of Keck's vehicle. When determining whether an officer had reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop, we consider whether 'the totality of the circumstances' presented 'a particularized and objective basis' for the officer's belief that the subject was engaged in criminal activity. If an officer observes a driver commit a traffic violation, he has probable cause - and thus also the lesser included reasonable suspicion to stop that driver. But if the officer stops a driver based on the officer's mistaken belief that the observed conduct constituted an infraction, the officer's suspicion is no longer reasonable, and the stop is therefore unsupported and impermissible...
Evasive action, including possibly driving left-of-center has become a necessity with the current conditions of our County Roads....We must conclude Deputy Smith lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Keck..."
You can read the entire opinion at this link.
Editor's Note: This is a ruling that Erin Gardner's attorney should take particular note of.
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