Our Minnesota Criminal Defense Lawyer Explains Pretrial Matters
From the stop to the filing of charging instruments in court, criminal pretrial procedure is much like a string of Christmas lights. If one bulb is removed, the whole string often goes out. So, a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer must find the right bulb to unscrew, or the right procedural irregularity to attack.
Before they pull over motorists on the street or detain people on the sidewalk, officers must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Courts define this standard as “specific, articulable facts.” In reality, reasonable suspicion is essentially an evidence-based hunch.
Often times, especially with regard to motor vehicle stops, a traffic violation serves as reasonable suspicion. Such infractions could be non-moving violations, like an expired inspection sticker, or a moving violation, like speeding. Additionally, the Traffic Code is awash in ticky-tack violations, such as failing to stop prior to exiting a private driveway or a license plate frame which obscures the information on the plate.
Note that the traffic violation usually has nothing to do with the charged offense. For example, an officer might pull a motorist over for a burned-out taillight and arrest the motorist for DWI. In this case, the officer must also have reasonable suspicion that the driver is intoxicated. Evidence on this point includes things like erratic driving prior to the stop and the motorist’s bloodshot eyes.
Overall, reasonable suspicion is a very low standard. However, there are a few things which do not constitute reasonable suspicion, either at the initial stop phase or the investigation phase.
- Unreliable Tip: Information provided by anonymous tipsters is generally unreliable. If the tipster did not vouch for the information, there’s no reason for a judge to give it greater weight. So, these tips usually require some independent corroboration.
- Profiling: This illegal practice is rather hard to prove. Examples include a DWI roadblock in a predominantly nonwhite area and officers who pull over a disproportionate number of ethnic motorists.
- Furtive Movements: When officers stop them, many people get nervous. Their eyes dart into their rearview mirrors or they dig through their glove boxes for insurance forms. Such furtive movements can be misinterpreted, and they don’t necessarily constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Reasonable suspicion shortcuts are especially common during STEP campaigns and saturation enforcement campaigns. During these efforts, police officers are redirected to a certain area of town and instructed to make as many DWI arrests or write as many speeding tickets as possible. To justify the enormous effort officers may stop vehicles without a reasonable suspicion to inflate their arrest tally.
Physical Evidence and Search Warrants
During the colonial era, British authorities used writs of assistance, which were essentially blank search warrants, to rummage through private property whenever they pleased. The Founding Fathers included the Fourth Amendment in the Constitution specifically to end this practice. Now, only judges can issue search warrants, and only if officers show probable cause. More on the probable cause standard below.
However, the Fourth Amendment only prohibits “unreasonable” warrantless searches and seizures. Over the years, courts have carved out a number of exceptions to the search warrant requirement, as follows:
- Consent: Owners or apparent owners can voluntarily consent to property searches. Apparent owners are people like drivers who do not own the vehicle. Property includes everything from a smartphone to a house. In all cases, consent is an affirmative, voluntary, and revocable act.
- Plain View: This exception usually comes up during the aforementioned reasonable suspicion stops. If officers are legally in a certain place (e.g. if they had reasonable suspicion), they may seize weapons, drugs, or other contraband they see in plain view.
- Emergency Circumstances: If officers respond to a disturbance call, they may sweep through a dwelling or other building to ensure that everyone inside is safe. During such safety sweeps, they may seize any contraband they see in plain view.
Other exceptions include limited searches incident to lawful arrests, weapons pat-downs, and hot pursuit searches. Prosecutors have the burden of proof to show that the search or seizure was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Testimonial Evidence and the Miranda Rights
Most people are familiar with confessions and other testimonial evidence, as well as the right to remain silent and other Miranda rights. But many people do not realize how broad these words are.
Testimony applies to more than oral statements. The right to remain silent also includes the right to refrain from certain conduct. Everyone must comply with basic “step out of the car” police commands. Other than that, however, the Fifth Amendment applies.
Additionally, police officers must administer the Miranda rights before custodial interrogation begins. Let’s look at these terms more closely.
- Custody: The c-word does not mean handcuffs clinking or a cell door closing. Rather, custody begins when reasonable people do not feel free to leave. Frequently, when people see flashing lights in their mirrors, they do not feel free to leave.
- Interrogation: Skilled investigators know how to interrogate suspects without asking questions. They also know how to extract damaging information from seemingly innocuous inquiries. So, as a rule of thumb, before officers say anything, they should arguably read suspects their rights.
Much like consent to search, an assertion of your Miranda rights must also be clear and unequivocal. Suspects must say something like “I am asserting my Constitutional rights” or “I refuse to say or do anything until I talk to a lawyer.”
Minnesota courts have never defined this standard of evidence, which is the standard for an arrest. However, it is somewhere between reasonable suspicion, which was discussed above, and beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard for guilt or innocence.
Let’s return to the DWI example. Evidence like an odor of alcohol and bloodshot eyes, at best, only proves recent consumption. It does not prove intoxication, which is a loss of mental or physical faculties due to excess alcohol consumption.
The probable cause standard requires more. In most cases, the “more” comes from the walk and turn and other field sobriety tests. These tests are scientifically designed to detect alcohol intoxication.