Consider this: It is a nice spring Thursday evening and you decide to meet friends for dinner. After visiting for a few hours, you decide it is time to drive home. On your way, you happen to go slightly over the speed limit and a police officer pulls you over. Upon his arrival to your driver side window, the police officer notices you have an ignition interlock device installed and immediately asks you to step outside the vehicle and starts to conduct a DUI investigation. Despite the fact that you have not had a single drop of alcohol, you are now being subjected to the humiliating process of a field sobriety test. Does the officer have the right to stop your vehicle and conduct a DUI investigation based solely off the fact that your vehicle was equipped with an ignition interlock device?
What is an Interlock device?
An Ignition Interlock Device (IID) is about the size of a cell phone, connects to a vehicle’s ignition, and is capable of determining a person’s blood alcohol content. Once installed, a driver must provide an alcohol-free breath sample before the engine will start. If the IID detects alcohol on the driver’s breath, the engine will not start. Drivers are periodically required to provide new breath samples en route. The International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety claims that IIDs can result in a 40–95 percent reduction in the rate of repeat drunk driving offenses.
Interlock Laws in California
Pursuant to a relatively new California state law, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is conducting a Statewide Ignition Interlock Device (IID) Pilot Program that requires all repeat and all injury-involved driving under the influence (DUI) offenders to install an IID. A first-time DUI without injury will not require installation of an ignition interlock device (at least through the DMV) unless the driver is in one of five pilot counties, which require installation for a first-time offense.
Notwithstanding what the DMV might require, in California, the court, at its discretion, may require that a person convicted of a first DUI offense install an IID their vehicle or vehicles.
IID as a Pretext for a DUI Stop
Under the United States Constitution, law enforcement must have justification before it can initiate a traffic stop or arrest anyone. In the context of a DUI, the level of justification is usually expressed as “reasonable suspicion” for a DUI traffic stop, and “probable cause” for a DUI arrest. In other words, a law enforcement officer must have “reasonable suspicion” that a traffic violation is or was taking place before they can stop a vehicle. “Reasonable suspicion” means that the officer was suspicious that a traffic violation occurred (not necessarily a DUI, because the officers don’t yet have enough facts to stop based on DUI alone) and they can articulate why their suspicion was reasonable.
Most of the time, officers have more than reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle for a traffic violation because the officer actually witnesses a traffic violation occur, such as speeding or running a red light. However, once a stop is made, the officer must have probable cause to arrest a driver for a DUI. Probable cause means that the officer has reasonable and trustworthy facts that the driver is driving under the influence.
An officer should able to determine if a person has a DMV-required IID installed in their vehicle by scanning a license plate. But that, by itself, doesn’t even warrant the reasonable suspicion that the person has done anything wrong. Remember, that officers need, at a minimum, reasonable and articulable suspicion that a person is driving drunk. Merely knowing that a driver has an IID in his or her car doesn’t mean that the driver is currently drunk (in fact, quite the opposite), and therefore can’t be the officer’s reasonable suspicion needed to make the stop.
From the point the stop is initiated, the law enforcement officer is trying to obtain the requisite probable cause so that they can arrest the driver at the end of the stop on suspicion of DUI. Some of the ways that the officer obtains that probable cause is through observing the signs of intoxication through the driver’s eyes, breath, and speech, observing poor performance on field sobriety tests, and obtaining a BAC reading which would indicate that the driver had alcohol in their system (recall that the pre-arrest roadside breathalyzer is optional).
It goes without saying that if an officer is aware a driver has an IID in their car, the police are going to want to pull that driver over. While courts have held that police can have an ulterior motive for pulling someone over (such as a DUI), the officer must still have the reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, beyond merely knowing that an IID is in the driver’s car.