Constitutional Issues in Virginia DUI Cases

In many DUI cases your constitutional rights may come into play if you are taken into custody or searched by law enforcement. Below, a Virginia DUI lawyer discusses what this can mean for your case, and what kind of protections you have under the law. For more information call and schedule a consultation today.

Common Constitutional Issues in Virginia DUI Cases

The most common constitutional issue in DUI cases in Virginia is the Fourth Amendment issue surrounding whether there is probable cause for arrest. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution says that people are to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and when a person is being arrested, that is a seizure of their person for purpose of the Fourth Amendment and is only legal if it is supported by probable cause.

Probable cause consists of all of the facts that the police can generate from the moment that they first encounter the defendant until the time of the arrest. This includes everything from driving behavior to how the person appeared, whether their eyes are glassy or bloodshot and how the person smelled, to whether they are unsteady on their feet, and how they performed on field sobriety tests.

It is not unusual for a person to be arrested for DUI on relatively thin evidence. When that’s the case, there has to be, at the time of trial, a challenge to that arrest where the attorney will argue that the arrest was actually illegal because there wasn’t sufficient evidence to amount to probable cause for the arrest.  If that is the case, the Fourth Amendment has been violated. If the attorney can persuade the judge of this, then the case will be thrown out.

Fourth Amendment Protections in DUI Cases

The Fourth Amendment grants two particular rights in the case of DUI cases. The first one is to be free from unreasonable searches and the second is to be free from unreasonable seizures. Unreasonable in this context means not supported by probable cause. An unreasonable search is going to be any search where the police search the vehicle or search the person, without having developed sufficient facts to believe that there is evidence of a crime having been committed or a crime that’s ongoing either on the person or inside the vehicle.

Frequently, in the course of DUI arrest, there will be a warrantless search of the vehicle either prior to the time of arrest or after the time of arrest. Depending on which it is, there are different rules which would apply. The particulars of the case will determine whether an attorney is able to suppress the results of either a pre-arrest search or a post-arrest search.

What is a Warrantless Search?

The Fourth Amendment says that in order for a person, their belongings, or their home to be searched, that there has to be a warrant issued by a judge based on probable cause. That having been said, there are a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement most of which relate to circumstances where it’s either impractical to get a warrant or where evidence might be lost or destroyed in the time that it would take to get a warrant.

Warrantless searches are not unusual in the context of traffic stops and frequently will involve the police searching vehicle for alcohol or illegal drugs. This can happen either pre-arrest or post-arrest.

What Are Your Rights Regrading Search and Seizure?

Search and seizure in general refer to, number one, when a person or their vehicle is being searched or looked through or investigated by police in an effort to find illegal items or other contraband or evidence of a crime.

Seizure refers to any time a person is detained by the police and not free to go. The classic type of seizure is an arrest. And for a person to be arrested, it has to be supported by a probable cause. However, a person can be seized for Fourth Amendment purposes without actually being arrested. When that’s the case, all of the same protection still apply.

Other Constitutional Issues That Apply in DUI Cases

Other constitutional issues in DUI cases include the right to not incriminate oneself under the Fifth Amendment. Many people are unaware that their right to remain silent extends to any encounter that they have with the police, any questions that they’re being asked by the police, and any tests that the police asks them to perform.

Virginia law requires that a person identify themselves and provide ID to police upon request. Beyond that, the Fifth Amendment says that the person is not required to answer any other questions about where they’re going, about where they’re coming from, or about how much they have had to drink. In addition, the Fifth Amendment protects a person from having to perform any test that might incriminate them such as a field sobriety test or preliminary breath test administered by the side of the road.
Virginia state courts treat constitutional issues very seriously. The Constitution of the United States gets interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States as well as the federal appellate courts.  Where there is no guidance from these courts on a particular issue, State appellate courts must interpret the Constitution.

While sometimes the federal interpretations and the state interpretations may differ in some respects, nevertheless, the United States Supreme Court and the Federal Court of Appeals for the circuit that the state sits in (the 4th Circuit in the case of Virginia) are the highest and controlling authorities when it comes to constitutional issues. State courts are compelled to follow their rulings and interpretations.
However, in many cases, there are particular issues under the constitution which have not been dealt with by the United States Supreme Court or the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which is the federal appellate court that Virginia sits in.  In those cases, local state courts may in fact look to the Virginia Court of Appeals or the Virginia Supreme Court for guidance on how to apply those federal constitutions.