Most DWI cases start with a traffic stop. An officer observes a possible traffic violation, pulls the driver over, and during the course of the stop discovers evidence of drunk driving. If, however, the officer lacked “probable cause” to initiate the traffic stop in the first place, that renders any evidence obtained during the stop inadmissible in court. Indeed, Texas law requires judges to instruct a jury that it may disregard any evidence obtained by an officer “if it believes, or has a reasonable doubt, that the evidence was obtained in violation” of a defendant’s constitutional rights.
No “Material” Factual Dispute Warranting Special Instruction to Jury
But this instruction is only required when there is a disputed issue of “material” fact. What does that mean? Well, let’s take a look at a recent DWI case from here in Houston, James v. State, where this subject came up.
In this case, a Harris County police lieutenant was on patrol early one morning when he observed the defendant driving her car onto the road. According to the lieutenant, the defendant was “straddling one of the divider lines” and traveled at inconsistent speed, at times exceeding the posted limit of 40 miles per hour. After tailing the defendant for about 2 miles, the lieutenant decided to initiate a traffic stop. Both vehicles pulled into a nearby parking lot. During the stop, the lieutenant detected signs of intoxication and initiated an investigation that ultimately led to the defendant’s arrest on a misdemeanor DWI charge.
The case was tried by a jury. During deliberations, the jury asked the judge if evidence was admissible from the traffic stop even if the lieutenant lacked “probable cause” to pull the defendant over initially. The judge did not previously issue an instruction on this point, as the defense conceded there was no “factual dispute” requiring a charge. The jury proceeded to find the defendant guilty.
On appeal, the defense argued the judge should have issued the instruction in response to the jury’s question. The appeals court disagreed. The only potentially conflicting evidence was video footage taken from the lieutenant’s dashboard camera. The defendant maintained the video contradicted the officer’s testimony that she had improperly changed lanes and that he stopped her at the “first well-lit parking lot.”
Even if true, the appeals court said, none of these facts were “material to the legality of the stop.” For one thing, the lieutenant said he decided to stop the defendant because she was speeding, not because of an illegal lane change. Nothing in the dashboard camera footage contradicted this, so even if the video did illustrate minor inconsistencies in the officer’s trial testimony, that was not enough to warrant a jury instruction on the overall admissibility of evidence.
Speak with a Houston DWI Defense Lawyer Today
In any DWI case, you have a constitutional right to present a defense and challenge the evidence introduced against you. A qualified criminal defense attorney can represent you throughout this process. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City if you need to speak with a lawyer today.