Although we all like to think that we are the best driver and that there is no cause for the police to pull you over, you may be surprised just how little it takes for a police officer to legally conduct a traffic stop. Police may stop you in your car if they have “specific and articulable facts” establishing “reasonable suspicion” of a motor vehicle violation or criminal activity. See State v. Duesterhoeft, 311 N.W.2d 866 (Minn. 1981).
While the language may seem confusing, it essentially means that police can stop you for two reasons: 1) they observe you breaking a traffic rule, or 2) they suspect, based on your driving conduct and their observations, that you have committed a crime (in this case, DWI).
So, what sort of traffic rules can police use to justify your stop? Put simply, any. If you were doing 58 in a 55 zone – the police can stop you. If you fail to signal your lane change (at all or for the required distance) – the police can stop you. If you turn into the incorrect lane when taking a corner – the police can stop you, if your license plate is obscured by dust or snow – the police can stop you. If you have an air freshener hanging from your rear-view mirror – the police can stop you.
However, police can also stop you with reasonable suspicion that you are driving while impaired. So, even if you have broken no traffic law, if you are weaving within your lane, driving slowly, turn off the road when you see police behind you, are pulling out of a parking lot at a bar at 2:00 a.m., fall asleep in your car outside a liquor store, driving in a high crime area, etc., the police can articulate these observations in such a way that they may have reasonable suspicion to believe you are driving under the influence, and they can conduct a traffic stop. Importantly, the police do not have to observe this conduct themselves: a report by an identifiable citizen is usually sufficient. A common way people are arrested for DWI’s is during a “welfare check” following a citizen complaint that someone is passed out in the driver’s seat of their car (often with the engine still running).
Importantly, the landmark decision in State v. Pike, 551 N.W.2d 919 (Minn. 1996), allows police to run the license plate number of any car they see. If they learn from this that the vehicle’s owner has a revoked license, they can stop the vehicle absent clear evidence that the revoked individual is not who is driving. Additionally, under the Minnesota Constitution, police cannot use roadblocks/checkpoints to stop cars to investigate drivers for evidence of driving while intoxicated. Ascher v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 519 N.W.2d 183 (Minn. 1994).