Probable Cause Challenge - Headlights Not Required

A good Seattle or Washington State DUI lawyer will analyze every DUI arrest to determine what legal issues might be raised by the defense. A critical issue in many DUI arrests is whether the initial detention or stop by the police officer is legal. An officer must have a legal reason to pull someone over and then to make a DUI arrest. If the original reason for pulling the vehicle over is not legally justified, then all of the evidence obtained pursuant to the detention will be thrown out of court. A DUI defense attorney's proper preparation and investigation of a Washington State DUI arrest can produce results. A recent DUI case handled by our firm illustrates this point. On May 21, 2008, at 8:56 p.m. the accused was stopped by a DUI squad officer after the officer observed the vehicle driving without headlights on and in addition, the vehicle drifted over the lane line for approximately two or three seconds, then abruptly correcting back into the lane. In examining the legality of the detention, our firm first reviewed the law regarding the use of headlights: RCW 46.37.020 states: "Every vehicle upon a highway within this state at any time from a half hour after sunset to a half hour before sunrise and at any other time when, due to insufficient light or unfavorable atmospheric conditions, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of one thousand feet ahead shall display lighted headlights, other lights, and illuminating devices as hereinafter respectively required for different classes of vehicles, subject to exceptions with respect to parked vehicles, and such stop lights, turn signals, and other signaling devices shall be lighted as prescribed for the use of such devices." The question then arose whether 8:56 p.m. was more than a half hour after sunset. If so, then headlights were required. We knew that NOAA has a website that will establish sunrise/sunset times and for the date in question, sunset was 8:48 p.m. Therefore, since the driving was within a half hour of 8:48 p.m., headlights were not required under this part of the statute. Headlights would be required under the statute, however, if "due to insufficient light or unfavorable atmospheric conditions, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of one thousand feet ahead." This was a critical point of contention at the DUI court hearing on the defense motion to dismiss based upon lack of probable cause to detain. The officer testified that it was a cloudy, rainy time, dark enough to require lights, and that every car had headlights on except for our client. However, the DUI officer's testimony did not establish that it was so dark that persons and vehicles were not clearly discernible one thousand feet ahead. This is an objective standard that had noe been met by the testimony of the DUI officer. Thus, we argued that the DUI detention and arrest could only be justified on the basis of the alleged lane travel violations. There is a Washington State law stating that "every vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane" and this statute has been interpreted by our Courts of Appeal as not prohibiting a momentary incursion onto a lane line. Knowing the law, we had a good argument regarding the legality of the detention. The defense DUI motion alleging an illegal detention was prepared with appropriate briefing the pointed the court to the correct statuts and also included the NOAA sunrise/sunset information. After argument, the motion was granted and the DUI prosecution was stopped because it was ruled that the DUI officer did not have legal grounds to stop the driver. Not every DUI arrest or detention is ruled illegal by a court. In fact, it is pretty rare for this to occur. However with proper preparation and knowledge of the facts and the law relating to a particular DUI case, legitimate challenges to the prosecution's case can often be raised. These principles apply to any Washington State DUI case whether a Seattle DUI, Redmond DUI, or othwerwise.