This is a broad overview of driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, and how they generally proceed. Here you will find tips on avoiding getting stopped in the first place, and how to protect your rights if you are stopped.
Typical Reasons for DWI Stops
Most people don't realize how much control they have over attracting an officer's attention in the first place. Common reasons for initial traffic stops of suspected DWI drivers are:
1. malfunctioning equipment (license plate lights burned out, no tail lights, burned out headlight)
2. not wearing eye protection when driving a scooter (lots of scooters around major universities, and who wears sunglasses at night?)
3. being asleep in the driver's seat of a running vehicle (called actual control of a vehicle, or ACV)
4. driving patterns (like crossing lines or making wide turns, which you may not be able to control if you are in fact intoxicated)
The bottom line is make sure your vehicle is in good repair and you are following all traffic laws. Of course it is best not to drink and drive at all, but even a beer or two and you don't want to attract unwanted attention.
Officers are trained to make many observations about a driver and their driving before and during a traffic stop. Bloodshot, watery eyes, slurred speech, and the odor of intoxicants are observations listed in almost every single DWI report. Failing to properly handle (and hand over) your documents (driver's license, insurance, registration) will all be noted and counted against you. Keep your documents handy and know where they are at all times.
You WILL be asked questions; you WILL NOT be advised of your right to remain silent (known as Miranda rights), because the courts have ruled you aren't in custody at this point, so you don't have to be told anything. But you CAN refuse to answer questions! Beware, however, that not cooperating is almost certainly going to earn you a trip to jail. But sometimes it's better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing (like where you're coming from (the bar) and how much you've had to drink (too much)).
Field Sobriety Tests
The three standard field sobriety tests are the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, the walk and turn (W&T) test, and the one leg stand (OLS) test. Again, you DO NOT have to take these tests, but they won't tell you that on the side of the road.
1. HGN - nystagmus is the involuntary jerking of the eye that is caused by numerous things, including alcohol. You follow the tip of a stimulus (often a pen or a finger) without moving your head. The officer is looking for 6 clues, 3 in each eye. You cannot affect the outcome of this test; remember, it's involuntary jerking. Four out of six clues is considered consistent with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher.
2. W&T - a series of nine heel-to-toe steps, followed by a controlled turn, then nine more steps. This is a divided attention test, meaning the point is to make you do several things at once while remembering instructions, the theory being a sober person can and a drunk person gets a little lost. Practicing this test can improve ones performance, but it doesn't take much to mess it up. Two out of eight clues is considered consistent with intoxication.
3. OLS - stand on one foot, raise the other about six inches off the ground, point your toe and count. Simple, right? But you also can't hop, can't use your arms for balance, and can't put your foot down. Oh, and if you sway too much, that's bad, too. Four clues; showing two gets you in trouble.
Field sobriety tests are complicated. They have to be given a certain way, in certain conditions. There can be a lot to attack here.
This section could be a guide unto itself. Advising of ones right, performing them correctly, testing them correctly; it goes on and on. Because it can be so involved, just remember this: you WILL be asked for a sample (of breath, blood, urine, or saliva), you should be given a chance to take another test at your own expense if you submit to theirs, and there are going to be all kinds of punishment attached to your driver's license privileges if you refuse. If you've gotten this far in the process, you're already in trouble. Take the test if you haven't been drinking; think twice if you have.
What You Stand to Lose
DWIs are serious; they kill many people every year, and hurt many more. People go to prison all the time for driving drunk, so don't do it, because if you do:
1. you're going to jail that night
2. your car is getting towed
3. you may have to pay a bondsman to get out
4. you may lose your job for not showing up to work
5. your driver's license is going to be suspended
6. you'll have to install an interlock device on your vehicle
7. you have to hire a lawyer (or you don't stand a chance of mitigating the damage)
8. you'll have to pay fines and court costs
9. you'll have to take alcohol education courses
10. you'll have to pay a reinstatement fee to get your license back
11. you may go back to jail or have to perform community service
And all of this is for a standard, run-of-the-mill DWI where no one got hurt and no damage was done. Hurt (or kill) someone, or crash a vehicle, and things will just get worse.
DWIs are serious. DWIs are expensive. DWIs are dangerous.
Don't risk it; call a cab, or Uber, or a friend. A little planning and you can have a great night on the town without paying for it for the rest of your life.
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