How Long Can Police “Reasonably” Detain a DWI Suspect?

DWI cases usually start with a routine traffic stop. But when a police officer suspects there may be more than just a normal traffic violation, the officer may detain the driver to conduct further investigation. From a legal standpoint, such detentions are permissible so long as they further a “legitimate law enforcement purpose.” That is to say, the officer may not unreasonably prolong the traffic stop in the hopes of discovering possible evidence of DWI or other criminal activity.

Austin Man Receives 1 Year in Jail for DWI with BAC of 0.15 Percent

But how long is too long when it comes to such detentions?

Texas courts tend to give police officers wide latitude in these situations. Take this recent decision from the Texas Third District Court of Appeals in Austin, Dunlap v. State. In this case, a police officer was on patrol during the July 4 weekend. Given the prevalence of drunk driving during this time period, the officer’s department actually had a special DWI task force assigned to patrol. This particular officer was not a member of that task force, although he had “training in performing field-sobriety tests and in investigating intoxication offenses.”

At some point during patrol, the officer observed the defendant speeding. More to the point, the defendant was doing 76 in a 60-mph zone. The officer initiated a traffic stop to give the defendant a ticket. As the officer talked to the defendant, however, he “noticed a strong odor of alcoholic beverage emitting from [the defendant’s] breath.” The officer said the defendant also “difficulty producing his proof of insurance and had bloodshot and glassy eyes.”

The defendant denied that he had been drinking.

The officer returned to his vehicle to run a check of the defendant for outstanding warrants. The officer also requested assistance from another officer assigned to the DWI task force.

These actions took about 12 minutes, after which the officer returned to the defendant’s car and asked him some additional questions. When the defendant refused to take a field sobriety test, the officer placed the defendant in handcuffs. The officer explained the defendant was not technically under arrest–he was simply “being detained for his safety and for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.”

DWI Police Stop

The task force officer then arrived on the scene. The defendant was taken out of handcuffs. The task force officer then conducted his own investigation. He also asked the defendant to take a field sobriety test, which the defendant again refused. The task force officer then arrested the defendant for DWI.

Subsequent chemical testing revealed the defendant’s blood-alcohol concentration exceeded 0.15 percent. This elevated the DWI charge to a Class A misdemeanor. A jury convicted the defendant, and the judge sentenced him to 1 year in jail.

The Third District later rejected the defendant’s appeal of his conviction. One issue raised in the appeal was the length of the defendant’s pre-arrest detention, as described above. The appeals court noted that between the two officers, there was roughly a 15-to-16 minute delay in detaining the defendant. The court said that was not unreasonable, especially since during the initial 12-minute delay, the first officer “continued to perform tasks throughout the detention related to the initiation of the traffic stop and the investigation of whether [the defendant] committed the offense of driving while intoxicated.” In other words, the two officers did not unreasonably prolong the initial traffic stop to the point where it violated the defendant’s constitutional rights.

Were You Accused of Drunk Driving in Houston, TX?

Speak with Houston DWI Lawyer Tad A. Nelson Today!

If police detain or arrest you on suspicion of drunk driving, remember you don’t have to answer any questions. You have the right to consult with a qualified Houston criminal defense attorney when interacting with law enforcement. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today if you need any legal representation in connection with a pending DWI charge.