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Decision expands law enforcement's DUI enforcement capabilities

While most of us go out of our way to be safe drivers, the reality is that we are not immune to minor mistakes behind the wheel. Indeed, even the most cautious among us will occasionally exceed the posted speed limit or go before their turn at a four-way stop.

Even though these mistakes are both trivial and inadvertent, the fact remains that many are still viewed as traffic infractions under the law, meaning a motorist can be pulled over and issued a ticket. Furthermore, as demonstrated by a recent case before the Tennessee Supreme Court, they can also be used as a pretext for pulling someone over on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Earlier this month, the state's high court issued two unanimous decisions in virtually identical DUI cases addressing the issue of whether it's constitutionally permissible for law enforcement officials, suspecting a motorist is intoxicated, to pull over their vehicle for briefly touching or crossing the centerline -- an admittedly common driving mistake.

The two DUI cases involved the following circumstances:

  • A driver convicted of DUI in Knox County was stopped after officers saw his vehicle cross the double-yellow line a few times while navigating a curvy two-lane road.
  • A driver convicted of DUI in Williamson County was stopped after officers saw her vehicle cross the right fog line with both tires once and touch it on two other occasions.

In both cases, the defendants argued that officers were lacking probable cause to pull them over and, as a result, any evidence of their driving under the influence was secured illegally.

The Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately ruled that police do indeed have the right to pull motorists over, as state lawmakers have decided to classify the failure to maintain a lane of traffic as a misdemeanor. It held that this was true even though the law itself is rather broadly written, providing only that vehicles must be driven "as nearly as practicable" within the lane of traffic.

"We recognize (the law at issue) criminalizes a common driving infraction and provides police officers with a great deal of discretion in determining whether to initiate a traffic stop," reads the opinion. "We are confident that drivers in Tennessee cross lane lines all the time. Nevertheless, our Legislature has chosen to criminalize the common driving infraction of crossing the center lane line (or lines) ... It is not for this court to second-guess our Legislature's policy decisions ..."

It's worth noting that even though the decision essentially makes it much easier for law enforcement officials to stop motorists they suspect of drunk driving, the justices nevertheless expressed hope that they would exercise this power with the necessary prudence.

If you've been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible to protect your rights and your future.

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