The issue at the center of People v. Geier, No. 2-10-0112, slip op. (2d Dist. February 22, 2011) is whether probable cause dissipates over time. In other words, if an officer has probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred or is occurring, does that probable cause eventually evaporate if the officer waits to act on it? According to the Geier court, the answer is "no."
The defendant in Geier was a 68-year-old woman traveling on a winding highway in Boone County. An officer observed defendant's car traveling "a little more than a quarter-mile away on Woodstock Road." Id. at 2. The officer observed the car "moving 'a little fast'" as it approached an intersection, at which the defendant "abruptly stopped." Id. After the car turned at the intersection, the officer observed all four tires go over the fog line. Id. The vehicle turned again onto another road, where the officer observed the left wheel of the car cross the center line. Id. Defendant was then stopped by the officer, id. at 2, and she was later cited with DUI. Geier, No. 2-10-0112, slip op. at 1.
Defendant filed a motion to quash arrest and suppress evidence based on a lack of probable cause. The trial court granted the motion, reasoning that " why I'm granting the motion to suppress the evidence is that if in fact he [the officer] was going to pull the car over, the defendant over for that violation, I think he could have done it a lot, lot sooner than at the corner of Riverside and Olson." Id. at 4. The State appealed. Id.
The issue on appeal was whether probable cause dissipated from the point at which the officer first observed the defendant cross the fog line and the point at which he finally pulled her over. If it the probable cause had dissipated, then he would not have had grounds to pull her over. If the probable cause remained intact, then the officer would have had grounds to pull defendant over, even as time had lapsed between the traffic violation and the stop. The appellate court ultimately reversed the trial court, holding that the officer still had probable cause to stop defendant because "Mere delay does not dissipate probable cause to arrest." Id. at 10 (citing People v. Sheppard, 242 Ill. App. 3d 24, 29-30 (1993)).
It is not clear from the court's holding just how long probable cause lasts or whether it can even "expire." Under the facts in the instant case, the traffic violation was close enough in time to the stop that it was still fresh. It appears that the court's holding relies at least in part on the fact that it was a winding road and that it would have been unsafe to pull defendant over immediately after witnessing the traffic infraction. In other words, there was good reason for him delaying the stop. But this rule probably has its limits. For instance, it's unlikely that a police officer would still have probable cause to pull a driver over when he saw that driver cross the center line a month ago and the driver was driving lawfully when pulled over. Therefore, because the court did not announce a bright line rule here, its application will be very fact-specific.