Don’t Be A Target Of DUI / OVI Investigations

You may be more of a target than you think. When you think about people arrested for drunk driving, do you picture a car driving erratically all over the road? That’s a common misconception. Most stops resulting in DUI/OVI charges are for minor offenses: failing to signal, driving a little over the speed limit, crossing a lane line one time. Some are even for non-moving violations: burned-out headlight, no license plate light, expired registration. A case decided last week by the Ohio Supreme Court illustrates how a minor violation can lead to more serious charges.

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Is That Vehicle Black Or White?
The case is State v. Hawkins. Hawkins drove past a police officer, and the officer ran the vehicle’s plate. It was registered to a white 2001 GMC SUV, but it was on a black 2001 GMC SUV. The officer stopped Hawkins and asked for identification. Hawkins did not have identification but provided his name, date of birth, and social security number. In the meantime, the officer verified the vehicle’s identification number matched the number registered with the Ohio B.M.V.

The officer learned there was an active arrest warrant for Hawkins and informed Hawkins of this. Hawkins sped away, crashed the vehicle, and fled on foot. The officer apprehended Hawkins and charged him with Failing to Comply with the Order or Signal of a Police Officer. Hawkins was found guilty of the charge and appealed his conviction to the 12th District Court of Appeals. The 12th District affirmed the conviction, and Hawkins appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Did The Officer Have Justification?
The Ohio Supreme Court concluded the discrepancy between the paint color of the vehicle and the paint color listed in vehicle registration records led the officer to believe the vehicle or its plates may be stolen, so the officer had a reasonable articulable suspicion to perform a lawful investigative traffic stop. The Court reasoned the color discrepancy itself is not a crime, but, based on the officer’s professional experience, the totality of the circumstances gave the officer a reasonable suspicion that Hawkins was engaged in criminal activity.

What About Precedent?
One issue which wasn’t raised in Hawkins was the holding in the case of State v. Chatton. In Chatton, an officer stopped Chatton because his vehicle did not have license plates. The officer approached and realized there was a temporary license plate in the rear window of the vehicle. The officer ultimately arrested Chatton for operating a vehicle without a license, found a loaded firearm, and charged Chatton with Carrying a Concealed Weapon.

The Ohio Supreme Court concluded that, once the officer observed the temporary tag, further detention of the driver was unlawful, so any evidence obtained after that point was inadmissible. In the Hawkins case, it seems that, once the officer verified the vehicle’s identification number matched the number registered with the Ohio B.M.V., Hawkins should have been released. Further detention was unlawful, so evidence obtained after the unlawful detention should be excluded from trial.

Make Sure You Are Not A Target
The Hawkins case demonstrates how a minor traffic violation can lead to charges for a more serious offense. This this relates to OVI cases: if you are driving at night, make sure you are not a target. Just like surfers need to take precautions to avoid being shark bait, you need to take precautions to make sure you’re not officer bait. Make sure your vehicle is properly registered, ensure it has no equipment problems, and be particularly attentive to your driving. This advice isn’t for those who are drunk: they should not drive at all. This is for those who have a drink or two with dinner and then drive home not expecting they could ever be charged with DUI/OVI.