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What counts as probable cause for a New York DWI arrest?

On Behalf of | Feb 23, 2022 | DWI Defense

There are various reasons a DWI charge may be flawed. The arresting officer may have improperly administered a breath test. The device used for the test may not have been calibrated correctly. The officer may have made a subjective decision based on flawed evidence. Or the officer may not have had probable cause.

Probable cause factors into DWI arrests more than once. In New York, the term the law uses is “reasonable cause.” Officers need reasonable cause to make the arrest. But before that, they must have reasonable cause to pull you over. Given this, it’s worth understanding what counts as reasonable cause.

The definition of reasonable cause

The way New York law defines reasonable cause, it is something that exists outside of a given individual. According to the Criminal Procedure Section 70.10, reasonable cause exists when there is evidence or information that appears reliable and would lead an ordinary person to believe it is “likely” a specific person committed a specific crime. The law goes on to say that the evidence or information can include hearsay.

In short, officers have reasonable cause to make arrests when they have evidence or information that suggest it’s likely their target committed a crime. They have reasonable cause to pull over a vehicle where they have evidence or information that suggests it’s likely the driver—or even a passenger—has broken the law.

The evidence for the initial stop can take various forms:

  • Speeding
  • Running a red light
  • Turning without signaling
  • Swerving out of a lane

Similarly, the evidence for the subsequent DWI arrest can also take different forms:

  • A breath test yielding a score of .08 BAC or higher
  • The smell of alcohol on the breath
  • Glassy eyes
  • Slurred speech
  • Failed field sobriety tests

An officer does not have to give a breath test or field sobriety test if the available evidence is compelling enough that an ordinary person would suspect the driver is impaired. It is also important to understand that an officer does not need to have reasonable cause for the DWI arrest to make the initial stop. Any sign of a traffic violation will suffice.

As an example, an officer would not necessarily have reasonable cause to pull you over simply because you leave a bar, get into a car and start driving. However, the officer could follow you for a while. During that time, if you do any little thing wrong, such as speed or turn without signaling, the officer could pull you over. At that point, the officer could start asking you questions, looking for evidence of a DWI.

When don’t police have reasonable cause?

Given how easy it can be for officers to find reasonable cause to pull you over, you may wonder why people often challenge DWI charges on lack of probable cause. The reason is that police sometimes overstep their bounds during a stop. There are many ways they may do this:

  • A traffic stop does not necessarily give the officers the right to search a vehicle
  • Police do not need a warrant to search your vehicle, but do need your permission or reasonable cause
  • Police may assume you intended to drive even if you were just sitting in your passenger seat with the engine on for heat
  • An officer pulls you over for speeding while other cars are racing past you at higher speeds
  • They arrest you for a DWI because they smell alcohol on your breath, even though you do not fail a breath test or show signs of impairment

While this list is by no means complete, it shows how officers may go too far during a stop. It also shows how the facts of an arrest aren’t always as simple as DWI charges may suggest. If you ever face DWI charges, you want to make sure the courts get all the facts. You don’t need to accept a DWI conviction rooted in an arrest no reasonable person would have made or that came after the police stopped you for no good reason.