Private Citizens Making DWI Traffic Stops in Louisiana

Fire_Department_-_Battalion_6While it may not be common, there are certain circumstances when Louisiana law allows a private citizen to stop another citizen for a suspected violation of the law. In a decision from last fall, the Louisiana Court of Appeal concluded that this aspect of the law made the stop of a suspected drunk driver legal, even though the citizen who made the stop was an employee of a fire department who used his vehicle’s emergency lights to make the stop and used physical force to restrain the driver at the scene.

At first, most of the facts of the case may sound fairly ordinary. Detective Darryl Sanders was driving his marked SUV early on June 18, 2011, when he spotted a white Ford Ranger proceeding in an erratic fashion north of Baton Rouge. Sanders turned on his lights and pulled the vehicle over. The driver, Michael Pratt, exhibited slurred speech and was belligerent toward Sanders. Sanders used physical force to restrain Pratt. Deputy Scott Courrege also responded and administered field sobriety tests, which the driver failed. Pratt refused a chemical breathlyzer test and ultimately was arrested for DWI.

What makes the case unusual is that Detective Sanders was not a police officer. He was a detective in the Arson Division of the Baton Rouge Fire Department, driving a BRFD vehicle when he encountered Pratt. Based upon this, and the fact that the stop took place outside the boundaries of the City of Baton Rouge, the driver argued at his trial for the suppression of certain evidence on the ground that Sanders exceeded his authority in pulling Pratt over and physically engaging the man. Specifically, the driver sought to have evidence about his field sobriety tests, his refusal of the chemical test, and several interrogation responses thrown out.

The trial court granted the motion, and the state appealed. The appeals court sided with the state, and, in Pratt’s subsequent trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years at hard labor. Pratt again appealed, but the court upheld the conviction. Pratt’s circumstances were very similar to a 2008 case, State v. Lavergne, in which the court also ruled against the driver. In the Lavergne case, the driver was stopped along I-10 by an off-duty volunteer firefighter from Texas, who used his emergency lights to make the stop. One of the key issues, in both Pratt’s case and the Lavergne case, was whether the non-police officer was acting as an agent of the state when he made his stop. Pratt’s argument regarding Sanders exceeding his authority would necessarily fail if Sanders was acting as a private citizen, and the law allowed any private citizen to do what Sanders did.

The Lavergne court found that the Texas volunteer firefighter acted as a private citizen, and the court in Pratt’s case decided that Sanders acted similarly. The law allows private citizens to make stops if the suspected law-breaker is believed to have committed a felony. Sanders testified that other drivers had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid being struck by Pratt’s truck. Based upon that evidence, the majority of the appeals court concluded that Pratt committed a felony — aggravated obstruction of a highway of commerce under La. R.S. Section 14:96 — which meant that Sanders was authorized as a private citizen to make the traffic stop.

One judge, Judge Toni Higginbotham, disagreed, stating that Pratt was entitled to the evidence suppression he sought. Judge Higginbotham concluded that Sanders went much further in detaining Pratt than the Texas firefighter did in detaining Lavergne. The Texas fireman merely took the driver’s keys when he walked away and waited for police to arrive, whereas Sanders used physical force to detain Pratt. This difference was significant, and Sanders’ extra steps went a long way toward blurring the “line between state actor and private citizen.”

Sometimes, one of the biggest keys to success (or failure) is getting inadmissible evidence thrown out so that it is not considered at your trial. For quality representation when it comes to your DWI issues, contact the skilled Louisiana DWI/DUI attorneys at the Cardone Law Firm. Our attorneys can put their years of experience to work for you to provide a strong defense.

For your confidential consultation, contact us online or phone Cardone at 1-888-89-CARDONE (1-888-892-2736).

More Blog Posts:

Refusing Chemical Blood-Alcohol Tests and Your Louisiana Driver’s License, Louisiana Injury Lawyers Blog, Nov. 30, 2015

Louisiana Court of Appeal Reduces Driver’s Sentence Because Trial Court Did Not Follow Statute, Louisiana Injury Lawyers Blog, Feb. 12, 2015

Photo credit: Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons.