In 2014, a woman was driving her vehicle behind a state trooper. The driver had her high beams on, but as she approached the trooper, she dimmed her lights. The trooper thought he saw the woman’s vehicle “bouncing” back and forth in her lane, but she did not commit a traffic violation. This raised the trooper’s suspicion, and he decided to slow down.
The woman remained behind the trooper’s vehicle and soon thereafter exited the highway. The trooper followed the woman as she exited the highway and pulled the woman over for allegedly committing the traffic violation of failing to dim her headlights.
Upon approaching the woman’s vehicle, the trooper detected the smell of alcohol and the woman admitted to consuming one alcoholic beverage. The woman submitted to all three field sobriety tests (horizontal gaze nystagmus, walk and turn, and one leg stand) and was placed under arrest for DUI / OVI and failure to dim her headlights.
Headlights and Reasonable Suspicion to Pull Over Driver in Ohio
The case, State v. Howell, proceeded to a motion hearing in the trial court. The driver’s attorney filed a motion to suppress challenging the traffic stop, the administration of the field sobriety tests, and her arrest. The trooper testified that the woman had not committed a traffic violation or been driving erratically. However, the trooper thought the “bouncing” by the woman’s vehicle wasn’t normal.
The trial court denied the driver’s motion to suppress, finding that the traffic stop was legal. Specifically, the trial court argued that the woman had driven her vehicle behind the trooper with her high beams on, and the trooper validly stopped her vehicle based on her failure to dim her headlights. The woman appealed the trial court’s decision.
Failure to Dim Headlights Does Not Constitute Reasonable Suspicion in Ohio
On appeal, the driver argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress the stop of her vehicle and all evidence gathered following the unlawful stop. However, prior to understanding the Appellate Court’s decision, we must first understand when a police officer can pull over a vehicle.
A traffic stop constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and, thus, must comply with the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement. When an officer observes a traffic violation, a stop of the vehicle that committed the violation is supported by reasonable suspicion. However, the totality of the circumstances must be examined to determine whether the officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop.
The trooper testified to the trial court that his stop was based on reasonable suspicion for the failure to dim, which is a violation of R.C. 4513.15. However, the statute provides that the driver of a vehicle may direct their headlights to a sufficient intensity to reveal persons, vehicle and other objects at a safe distance in advance of the vehicle, but when approaching an oncoming vehicle, the driver shall dim their headlights.
The driver argued that she could not have violated R.C. 4513.15 because she was behind the trooper and, therefore, the trooper was not part of oncoming traffic.
Even When the Police are Mistaken About the Law, Reasonable Suspicion Can Exist
Even when a police officer is incorrect in determining that a traffic violation occurred or if the officer misunderstands the law that the driver is allegedly violating, reasonable suspicion can exist. The test is whether an objectively reasonable police officer would believe that a traffic violation has occurred based on the totality of the circumstances.
In Howell, the plain language of the statute unambiguously refers to a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction. Thus, no objectively reasonable police officer could believe that a violation of R.C. 4513.15 had occurred and the trooper did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the driver’s vehicle.
The State, however, argued that even if the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the driver’s vehicle due to the headlight violation, the trooper could still stop the vehicle to determine if the driver had engaged in criminal activity under the totality of the circumstances test. Specifically, the State argued that the traffic stop occurred at 2:30 AM, the driver failed to dim her headlights, “bounced” in her lane, and refused to pass the trooper when he slowed his vehicle.
This was a ridiculous argument. A person is permitted to minimally weave in their lane. Furthermore, there was no evidence that the woman was driving erratically and committed no traffic violations. The State’s argument, if not overruled, would have given law enforcement carte blanch to pull over any driver with little to no cause.
Columbus and Delaware, Ohio DUI / OVI Attorney
If you have been charged with DUI / OVI in Columbus or Delaware, Ohio, contact Johnson Legal, LLC and speak with an experienced Columbus and Delaware, Ohio DUI / OVI attorney. Attorney David Johnson of Johnson Legal, LLC will discuss your case and assist you in fighting the charges. Call (614) 987-0192 or send an email to schedule a consultation regarding your DUI / OVI case.
Johnson Legal, LLC serves the following cities in the central Ohio area for DUI / OVI Defense:
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