If a cop says ‘get out of the car,’ get out of the car

You’re pulled over on the side of highway, your passenger is sick, and a cop pulls up behind you. He smells alcohol in the car. If the state trooper orders you out of the car, do you have to get out?

Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said “yes,” while ordering the reinstatement of driving-under-the-influence charges against a woman.

Last December, a Minnesota state trooper pulled up behind a stopped car on I-94 in Minneapolis when he noticed Julie Ann Klamar’s passenger vomiting out the door. The trooper noticed Klamar’s eyes were bloodshot and she agreed to a field sobriety test, which she flunked. Her blood alcohol level was later determined to be .122.

But the District Court tossed the case, ruling that the trooper didn’t have enough evidence and had “prematurely” ordered the woman out of the car.

“Under the Minnesota Constitution, a person has been seized if in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he or she was neither free to disregard the police questions nor free to terminate the encounter,” the court said today.

It is generally established that a seizure occurs when a police officer stops a vehicle. But the trooper in this case did not stop Klamar’s vehicle; he pulled up and parked behind the vehicle when it was already stopped along the side of the freeway. “[C]ourts generally have held that it does not by itself constitute a seizure for an officer to simply walk up and talk to a person standing in a public place or to a driver sitting in an already stopped car.”

In addition, the Minnesota Supreme Court has held that an officer’s use of a squad car’s flashing red lights, when pulling up and stopping behind a car parked on the shoulder of a highway at night, does not turn the encounter into a Fourth Amendment seizure. But this court has found a show of authority sufficient to constitute a seizure where officers asked a person to exit a parked vehicle and approach the officer.

Is the smell of alcohol in a car with more than one person enough justification for a police officer to seize the driver? “Because the odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle could have come from Klamar, from her passenger, or from another source in the vehicle, it was reasonable for the officer to physically remove Klamar from the other possible sources,” the court ruled today.

  • BJ

    This one seems troubling …. Do you have a link to the full opinion.

  • ce
  • boB from WA

    My son experienced this several years ago. He was stopped on the side of the road due to a flat tire. When the police officer pulled up, he smelled alcohol on his breath. Rather than conduct a field sobriety test, the police officer took my son to a police station, where they administered a blood test (which came back at .078 BAC). We were then called to come pick him up. His case was plea bargained down from DUI to minor under the influence. He still lost his license for 3 years, because in WA. the DOL can revoke a license without due process from the courts.

  • BJ

    Still a little troubled with it, BUT given how the law’s are worded it looks to be a reasonable ruling. Not sure if it will hold up at a higher level. The officer didn’t say that the driver was displaying many sign’s ( but did admit 1 drink) of being drunk (in the opinion anyway) so asking her to step out seem’s tenuous.

    If red watery eyes were only signs of drinking or drug use I would be in trouble.

    From the opinion – “Whether the police have reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigative seizure depends on the totality of the circumstances, and a showing that the seizure was not “the product of mere whim, caprice, or idle curiosity.” ”

    From the statements of fact –

    The trooper activated the emergency lights on his vehicle and pulled up behind the stopped vehicle to conduct a welfare check. As he did so, he observed the passenger door open and the passenger vomiting. The trooper approached the passenger side of the vehicle and noticed a strong odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle. Respondent Julie Ann Klamar was seated in the driver’s seat. From the passenger side of the vehicle, the trooper asked Klamar what the problem was. Klamar replied that her friend, the passenger, was not feeling well and was getting sick. The trooper later testified that during the exchange, he observed that Klamar’s eyes were bloodshot and watery. While standing near the passenger door, the trooper asked Klamar for her driver’s license and whether she had had anything to drink. Klamar replied that she had “one drink.” The trooper asked Klamar to step out of the vehicle and approach the trooper’s vehicle.