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Police can stop you for throwing a cigarette out of the window

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Did You Know That Throwing a Cigarette Butt Out of Your Window Can Allow Police to Perform a DWI Stop?

In a driving while intoxicated case (DWI), one of the key elements is the initial DWI stop. In order for an arrest to take place, the motorist must first be stopped by law enforcement officials. In the state of New Hampshire, there are two different manners in which a motorist can be stopped by police officers. The first manner involves random sobriety checkpoints. This scenario involves random roadblocks that are established by officers with the intention of stopping motorists passing through to check for proper license and registration, correct use of seatbelts, and any potential signs of alcohol intoxication.

The second way in which officers can stop an automobile involves probable cause. In our state, a police officer can legally pull over an automobile only if they possess probable cause that a crime has been committed or is in the process of occurring. In most instances, this happens when a law enforcement agent observes a car breaking traffic laws, like driving with a headlight out or failing to stop at an intersection.

In many instances, a police officer can opt to stop an automobile if they observe that the motorist is giving off signs that he or she is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Such visual cues can include observing the motorist weaving in and out of lanes, failing to properly signal a turn, or traveling at reduced speeds. Frequently, a police officer who observes such signs will pull the passenger vehicle over in order to gauge the driver’s level of sobriety. A critical element of NH DWI law is that police officers must have probable cause in order to stop motorists. For example, a state trooper cannot settle themselves outside of a bar on a weekend night and stop all patrons leaving the parking lot unless they personally observe the motorist making some type of error.

In order to stop as many intoxicated motorists as potentially possible, police officers will frequently resort to using the slightest errors a driver makes in order to stop them. For example, a recent case involving the Pennsylvania Supreme Court resulted in a ruling that a motorist who throws a cigarette butt out of their window while driving can provide adequate legal grounds for police officers to conduct a traffic stop.

In the summer of 2011, James Amatucci, a 61 year old motorist, was traveling down a street in Pennsylvania when he threw his cigarette butt of his car window. An officer who witnessed the act then decided to pull Mr. Amatucci over. The officer used the act of throwing the butt out of the window as probable cause for the traffic stop – stating that the defendant had violated a state law that barred citizens from littering.

Over the course of the stop’s duration, the police officer discovered that Mr. Amatucci had a BAC level that was well over the legal limit, in addition to a small bag of crack cocaine that was discovered inside his vehicle. Moreover, the suspect was operating on a driver’s license that had been suspended by the Pennsylvania DMV for a prior DWI conviction. While the suspect certainly presented a potential threat to other motorists on the roadway and was definitely in violation of multiple laws, the legal case centered around the legality of the traffic stop. Within the United States, criminal charges that arise from an officer conducted traffic stop without the presence of probable cause will be dismissed, regardless of the crime’s severity.

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a single cigarette butt is substantial enough to be classified as “scattering rubbish”. Consequently, the traffic stop was ruled legally valid. However, one single judge, Christine Donahue, thought that the ruling was troubling in more ways than one. She presented the following arguments in her dissenting opinion:

The majority's ruling "provides law enforcement with (grounds for) pretextual motor vehicle stops" if police officers can say a driver tossed something, be it a cigarette or a gum wrapper, out the window.” Donohue argued.

"It is unlikely that the Legislature intended such an insignificant action, done by so many on a frequent basis, to open the door for police to stop a vehicle."

If police officers are legally allowed to stop motorists for, as the Judge wrote, “insignificant actions”, then motorists could reasonably expect to be stopped unexpectedly and more frequently for minor infractions. Although littering itself is classified as a crime, an act as minor as throwing a cigarette butt out of the window should not be classified as evidence that a motorist is, in some manner, impaired or currently committing a more serious crime. Utilizing this case as precedent could be dangerous. Police officers could potentially argue that such a case’s ruling imbues them with the authority to stop many motorists that are just driving home late at night during the weekend (which is when the majority of DWIs occur).

However, even with this ruling, it does not mean that all traffic stops police perform are legal. If you have been arrested for, and charged with, a DWI in the state of New Hampshire and have legal questions as to whether or not the arresting officer possessed probable cause to stop your vehicle, contact one of our skilled and experienced NH DWI attorneys today. If not probable cause existed, our DWI lawyers can have all charges against you dismissed. Your initial consultation is free, so give us a call today.




Disclaimer: Past results do not guarantee a future outcome. Results include cases in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Attorney Dan Hynes is admitted to practice law only in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This website may be considered advertising. Contacting us does not create an attorney/client relationship and the information on this site is not legal advice and may be inaccurate or not applicable to your case. Each case is different.

Mailing Address: Dan Hynes PO BOX 598 Merrimack, NH 03054