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Penn. Supreme Court rejects DWI stop based on stopping to use GPS

Whenever the police decide to pull someone over or, they must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that a traffic violation or other offense has been committed or that an emergency exists. This is true in every state because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is required by the federal Constitution. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. That includes unreasonable traffic stops -- and instances where an officer keeps a driver from leaving.

Does the fact that a driver has pulled over to the shoulder of a road to operate their GPS navigation system imply anything suspicious? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just ruled that it does not. The court also vacated a drunk driving conviction based on evidence collected at the unreasonable stop.

This is good news for New Yorkers who travel to Pennsylvania, but it could also be applied to traffic seizures in New York. The New York State Court of Appeals may very well take a cue from Pennsylvania's high court. First, the issue is federal and second, the opinion includes a rather thorough examination of other state courts' opinions in similar cases.

The incident occurred on June 14, 2013, at 9:30 in the evening. A woman had pulled over onto the shoulder of I-79 in order to type instructions into her GPS navigation device. When a state trooper noticed the car, he turned on his emergency lights and pulled alongside the woman's car to see if she needed assistance.

He immediately became suspicious because the woman gave him a "hundred mile stare." That may have been the reason he was not satisfied when the woman said she was fine and did not need any help.

The trooper questioned the woman intensively, and she said a number of unusual things. For one, she said she was headed to New York for a dragon boat race. She also claimed to be the CEO of five companies. The trooper perceived this as rambling, which he took to indicate she might be drunk. He arrested her, and a blood test later confirmed that she had been.

Was this even a traffic stop?

Prosecutors argued that the state trooper had neither pulled the driver over nor prevented her from leaving. The high court reasoned, however, that the trooper had created a situation that was essentially the same as any involuntary stop by pulling up next to a civilian car with his emergency lights flashing.

"Upon consideration of the realities of everyday life ... we simply cannot pretend that a reasonable person, innocent of any crime, would not interpret the activation of emergency lights on a police vehicle as a signal that he or she is not free to leave," reads the opinion.

Did the trooper have reasonable suspicion to interrogate the driver?

The high court reminded the trooper that police officers must have specific, objective, articulable facts justifying all traffic stops. These can be facts that indicate a crime or an emergency, but they must be reasonable. Otherwise, the Fourth Amendment requires officers to obtain a warrant before stopping people or impeding them from their way.

The fact that a car has pulled over to the side of the road does not provide such a justification.

"There are many reasons why a driver might pull to the side of a highway: the driver may need to look at a map, answer or make a telephone call, send a text message, pick something up off the floor, clean up a spill, locate something in her purse or in his wallet, retrieve something from the glove compartment, attend to someone in the back seat, or, as in the instant case, enter an address into the vehicle's navigation system," the opinion reads. "Pulling to the side of the road to perform any of these activities is encouraged, as a momentary distraction while driving may result in catastrophic consequences."

If you have been arrested for DWI after what seems like an unreasonable traffic stop, we recommend you contact an attorney for an evaluation of your situation. Under the right circumstances, evidence from the traffic stop could be suppressed.

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