The Fourth Amendment, one of the keystones of all criminal defense work, prohibits searches and seizures that are “unreasonable.” In the past on our blog, we've gone time and time again into the search aspect of the Fourth Amendment, from what searches are to the third party doctrine to the exclusionary rule.
Whether a seizure is reasonable or not, however, is no less complex. Some of our past blog posts highlight just how tricky they can be, and are useful examples to think about as we delve into the efforts of courts to come up with rules for police to follow.
Are Sobriety Checkpoints Seizures?
In one of our blog posts from over a year ago, we discussed the complicated legality of sobriety checkpoints. A sobriety checkpoint involves a group of police officers pulling cars to the side of the road to look for evidence of operating under the influence (OUI). Importantly, this means they have no probable cause to suspect you of being under the influence, but still ends with you getting pulled over, which is a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.
The Supreme Court of the United States, however, has determined that this seizure is reasonable. In Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, the Court decided that, despite the lack of probable cause, the importance of keeping the roads free of drunk drivers made the seizure fine.
Is a Traffic Stop a Seizure When the Cruiser's Sirens Aren't On?
In a recent case decided by the Maine Supreme Court, Maine v. Blier, a driver was nearly home when a police car behind him turned on its “wig wag” lights, but not its sirens, because the license plate lights on the driver's car were out. Not thinking that he was being pulled over, the driver continued on his way, going approximately 860 more feet before turning into his driveway. Only when he was in his driveway did the officer put on the cruiser's flashing lights. At no point were the sirens activated. The driver entered his enclosed porch and was inside his house when the officer initiated the “traffic stop,” bringing the driver back to his car to get his vehicle registration, where the cop started gathering evidence of an OUI crime.
One question that the Maine Supreme Court dodged in its decision was when the seizure occurred. Was it:
- When the officer put on his “wig wag” lights on the road?
- When he put on his flashing lights in the driver's driveway?
- When he started talking to the driver over the threshold of his house?
- When he said that the driver “needed” to get his vehicle registration?
- When he started doing field sobriety tests after smelling alcohol on the driver?
- Or was it when the officer clapped the handcuffs on the driver after he failed the field sobriety tests?
Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
Whether a seizure has occurred makes a huge difference if you're being suspected of a crime. However, it's not always clear if you're under arrest or not. We'll delve into these complexities in several future posts.