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In our last blog post, we ended with a real-life situation from a Maine Supreme Court case, Maine v. Blier, which provides an excellent example of how the wide spectrum of possible police detentions makes talking about unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment very difficult.
A man was driving his car and was almost home when a police officer behind him noticed that his license plate lights weren’t working. The officer turned on his “wig wag” lights, but not his police lights or his sirens. The driver didn’t think he was being pulled over, so continued driving the remaining 860 feet into his driveway. The officer pulled into the driveway behind him, turning on his police lights as he did so, the driver had entered his enclosed porch and had just keyed into and entered his house when the cop caught up to him, telling the driver that he “needed” to provide his vehicle registration. When the driver went with the officer back to his car, the officer smelled alcohol, administered field sobriety tests, and arrested the driver for operating under the influence (OUI) when he failed them.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits both searches and seizures that are deemed “unreasonable.” However, just like when it comes to a police search, exactly when a police seizure turns from one that is “reasonable” to one that is “unreasonable” is not an easy subject.
Perhaps the most complex aspect of a police seizure is the fact that there is so much gray area between when someone is definitely seized, and when they are definitely not seized.
Maine v. Blier highlights this issue perfectly.
On the one hand, there’s no doubt that the driver was “seized” by police when the officer slapped the handcuffs on him. On the other hand, there’s also no doubt that, before the officer turned on his “wig wag” lights, the driver had not been seized. In between these two extremes, however, things get murky.
To make matters even worse, there were two different infractions at issue in Blier – the car’s license plate lights and the driver’s OUI. This raises a question that is especially important in OUI-defense: When does the probable cause that supports the detention for one infraction begin to overflow and start supporting the detention for another infraction?
As we delve into the law of police seizures, we’ll often refer back to the Blier case and use it as a touchstone for understanding how criminal procedure works when it comes to arrests, detentions, and your Fourth Amendment rights.
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