The police need something called “probable cause,” or actual evidence, that a crime was committed to make an arrest, but they only need “reasonable suspicion” to stop a car to see if a driver is operating the vehicle while impaired (OVI).
Reasonable suspicion is a much lower legal standard. In theory, it means that the officer, using their experience and training, needs some excuse to stop the vehicle that would make sense to another reasonable person. In reality, “reasonable suspicion” can be almost anything – because one reasonable suspicion can build on another.
What does that mean?
It means that an officer can pull your car over and start a traffic stop for the most minor offense. Maybe you stopped a little too long at a stop sign because you were unsure of your route, but the officer thought that you were falling asleep at the wheel. Maybe you are tired, and your fatigue caused you to weave a little or make a turn that went too wide.
Either way, the stop can easily become a fishing expedition. The officer can then use your appearance, your words and your behavior to justify another reasonable suspicion – that you’re actually a drunk driver.
For example, maybe you admit that you were coming home from work, and you happen to work at a local restaurant where there’s alcohol served. The officer asks if you had anything to drink, and you admit that you had a beer early in the evening, during your shift. You think there’s no harm in admitting that because it was hours ago already – but that and your bloodshot eyes give the officer reasonable suspicion to keep probing.
The next thing you know, you’re being asked to perform a field sobriety test, which you agree to only because you think you will easily pass. When you fail, you’re stunned to be arrested on an OVI charge – but that just gave the officer probable cause to believe you’re impaired.
This kind of scenario happens all the time. If you’re facing OVI charges, the wisest thing you can do is exercise your right to remain silent and find out more about your potential defenses.