This post was written by Maryland DUI Attorney Ed Tayter (click here to learn more about his practice).
In order for a police officer to arrest a driver for DUI or DWI, they need to have probable cause. How does an officer turn a stop for a traffic infraction from a simple ticket to a DUI arrest? There are many factors that go into this determination.
The first thing an officer is trained to list in their report is the driving behavior that drew the officer’s attention. Was the stop made for an equipment violation, like a broken headlight or window tint, or was it triggered by driving behavior that is indicative of impairment, like weaving, driving without headlights, or driving the wrong way down a one way street? If it is the former, no implication of impairment can be drawn from the traffic stop. If it is the latter, then the officer already has some evidence of impairment.
The second thing that an officer is trained to look for and describe in their report is any positive indicator of impairment, or intoxication, exhibited by the driver prior to them exiting their vehicle. These can include odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from either the individual or the vehicle, or attempts to mask the aforementioned odor, like chewing gum or smoking cigarettes, speech that is slurred, mumbled, or confused, eyes that are bloodshot, glassy, or watery, movement that is not smooth or fluid, difficulty retrieving documents when requested, an admission of alcohol consumption prior to driving, or general confusion. Any or all of these clues can be used by an officer to justify asking an individual to get out of their car. Once a driver exits their vehicle, an officer is trained to look for more clues to justify an arrest for DUI or DWI. These clues involve a suspect’s balance and coordination. Does the individual need to use their vehicle for support? Does the individual sway while standing? Do they have a hard time keeping their balance? The officer will use any or all of these clues of impairment to justify asking a suspected DUI driver to perform Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, otherwise known as Roadside Tests.
There are three Standardized Field Sobriety Tests that are endorsed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. These are the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test, the Walk and Turn Test, and the One Leg Stand Test. I will describe these tests in greater detail in a subsequent post. The two most important things to understand about these tests are that they are designed to give a police officer more clues to make a DUI arrest, and that they are completely voluntary. Unlike a breathalyzer test back at the police station, there is absolutely no legal penalty for refusing to do Roadside Tests. The bottom line is that 99 times out of 100, it is a good idea to refuse to perform Roadside Tests. This will give a police officer fewer clues to justify arresting a driver for suspicion of DUI or DWI.
Understanding what the police are looking for when making DUI arrests can help drivers avoid being found guilty of DUI. If a Judge finds that an officer did not have a good reason to make an arrest, then all evidence gathered subsequent to the arrest must be suppressed. This means that even in cases where an individual give a breath sample of .08 or higher, an unjustified arrest will mean a Not Guilty in court.