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What are reasonable suspicion and probable cause in OWI cases?

Operating while intoxicated (OWI) is a serious offense that puts lives in danger. The stringent punishments doled out in Indiana, even for a first-time offense, reflect this. They include hefty fines, license suspension and even time in jail.

Although drunk driving is such a serious crime, the police still need a good reason to pull you over, known as reasonable suspicion. And, after a traffic stop, they need additional evidence to arrest you – probable cause.

Reasonable suspicion

Reasonable suspicion allows a police officer to stop a person or pull over a car if they think a crime has been committed. As far as impaired driving is concerned, the following could amount to reasonable suspicion for a police officer to make a stop:

  • Crossing the center line
  • Driving too slowly
  • Making wide turns
  • Frequent braking
  • Sitting too close to the windshield
  • Stopping for no reason

A police officer could pull you for other reasons – such as a broken tail light or speeding – and if they suspect you’ve been drinking, they could pursue it.

In Indiana, courts have ruled that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional. A police officer may stop any vehicle at a sobriety checkpoint without the burden of additional reasonable suspicion.

Probable cause

A police officer must have probable cause before making an arrest. Probable cause is the evidence the police officer uses to justify making an arrest. Probable cause requires a higher threshold of evidence than reasonable suspicion.

For a OWI case, this could mean a field sobriety test to gauge impairment or a breath test to estimate blood alcohol concentration (BAC). If an arrest is made, this is often followed up with a more precise blood test to determine BAC.

Know your rights

Because impaired driving is so serious, the consequence of an OWI conviction could have consequences much greater than legal penalties. If charged with a OWI, you may wish to seek legal advice to explore all options available to you.