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What About Happy Hour?

An item from the AP notes:

MADISON, Wis. – The Wisconsin Supreme Court says police were within their rights to pull over a drunken driver whose vehicle briefly crossed the center line.

The case involves Michael Popke, who was stopped in 2007 in New London after an officer saw his vehicle briefly drive into the left lane. His blood alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit, and Popke was charged with third-offense drunken driving.

An appeals court had ruled the stop unconstitutional, saying police did not have probable cause to pull him over.

The unanimous Supreme Court overturned that decision Wednesday. Justice Annette Ziegler says the stop was reasonable because Popke was driving erratically at 1:30 a.m.

Does this mean that police do not have probable cause to pull over a driver driving erratically at, say, 1:30 p.m.? What if the police had phoned in the tags, and noted he was a repeat drunk-driving offender — does that represent probable cause, or is that viewed as some kind of “profiling” (e.g., profiling hazardous drivers)?

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 28th, 2009 at 1:58 pm and is filed under Traffic Laws. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “What About Happy Hour?”

  1. John D. Williams Says:

    It is justified.

  2. John D. Williams Says:

    He crossed the line– that’s enough. Why do people think a small mistake is not cause?

  3. Torrilin Says:

    Dig around a little. In Wisconsin, it is illegal for the police to run traffic stops solely for the purpose of catching drunk drivers. They need to have “probable cause” to even try for a Breathalyzer test. In some respects, I think this is a good law. I do think it’s unwise for police to have blanket authority to pull someone over and get them out of their car because the were driving somewhat erratically. It’s too easy for being black to mean you’re an erratic driver. (and since WI allows traffic stops by unmarked cars, it’s also too easy for a rapist to trap people that way…)

    In other respects, I think it’s a very dangerous law. The legal standard for what constitutes “erratic”, “reckless” or “dangerous” driving is quite high in this state, so a driver can be a genuine hazard to themselves and everyone around… but they don’t get pulled over. It is not at all unusual to see people traveling at over 55mph on snow covered highways. Not plowed, and without enough traffic to keep the tire tracks clear enough for good stopping distances. I’ve tried to stop in such conditions, and I have found that even 35mph has longer stopping distances than I’d like. Speeding is treated as harmless, same with running red lights and dangerous passing. (dear residents of Wisconsin, I know you’re not used to hills… really, I have figured this out. but I swear to god, you can’t see through them, so if you pass someone going uphill you should not be surprised when another driver suddenly appears coming straight at you from the crest! that would be why that bit of road is marked as no passing.)

    So if the standard drivers are held to is uniform and strict enough for safety, I’d be ok with keeping the law on drug and alcohol related stops the way it is. Given the standards we actually have… I am less thrilled.

  4. 2fs Says:

    I will say that erratic driving is likelier to signify “probable cause” at 1:30 am than at 1:30 pm, in that it’s far likelier that such erratic driving is because of drunkenness than a momentary brain fart. It would be nice if officers would pull someone over after such behavior with the goal of determining a cause and thereby deciding what, if anything, is to be done…but Torrillin is sadly correct on the way vague laws are used by racist cops.

    The real problem is that our drunken driving standards are probably way too high, and there seems to be little done to curb repeat offenders. I’m dubious about the objective criterion of BAC…since the same amount of alcohol is clearly going to affect different people differently. If someone is driving erratically and is just below the legal limit, they’re clearly even more of a hazard than the person just above the legal limit who’s able to control the vehicle. (Not endorsing the latter – just noting relative degree.)

    And the even more real problem is that public transportation typically is simply not an option for many people.

  5. Niall Says:

    In Ireland, a similiar constitutional impediment for years meant that a police officer(Garda in Ireland) have to form an opinion that a person was likely to be drunk before they pulled them over.
    This was a barrier to random breath tests which in Australia have proved so effective in reducing fatalities from drink drivers.
    Then the attorney general in Ireland had the idea, that a police officer could form the opinion that a person could be drunk if they were driving at a time that people are likely to be drunk (eg late at night at weekends. In the year that this has been in place, there has been a 17% reduction in road fatalities.

  6. MattG Says:

    I have a lot more to lose if I get a ticket than most people as I hold a professional license and moving violations mean more than a slap on the wrist and a small fine. Because of that and the fact that I am more often than not transporting my family in the car with me, I am very oonscious that driving is a priviledge and not a right. People should expect stricter law enforcement with such things.

    I think that ANY moving violation is “probably cause” to pull someone… failing to signal a turn, speeding, erratic driving, etc. If all you get is a warning, at least you’re reminded of the law. But if there is a reason (like the case above) that you’re breaking the law, the police have a duty to enforce it and hopefully prevent you from hurting someone else.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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