Is it a crime to drink and drive? No, of course it is not. But there are people out there – like MADD people – who appear hellbent on bringing back the Alcohol Prohibition, one step at a time. Do you know how to best handle a DWI stop?
It used to be “drunk driving” was the crime.
Then in the 1970s the criminal laws were expanded to include “per se impaired driving laws.” Per se roughly translates from the Latin to “the thing itself” or “by itself.”
A per se drunk driving law is a law that makes driving with an arbitrary alcohol-level a crime – even though the driver is not drunk, not impaired at all.
That’s why you don’t hear the term “drunk driving” much anymore. But why should it be a crime to drive if driving skills are not impaired?
Ok. So the laws are unfair – punishing the innocent and their families for driving unimpaired. Fine. There it is.
So how can you protect yourself and your family from this potential injustice during a DWI stop?
What can you do at a DWI stop to protect your rights?
This is a question that criminal defense lawyers hear at a party. Why? Because almost all people stopped and later charged with DWI didn’t do any of the following things. But it can make for great conversation at a party.
There are a few different approaches and answers to the question. So let’s narrow our hypothetical, and provide one.
Since most people at a DWI stop have an alcohol concentration of less than 0.15, have no priors, and have not exhibited impaired driving conduct – let’s start with all of those assumptions, as well as assuming Minnesota laws.
Given the low speed limits these days and that most drivers travel faster than the speed limit most of the time, let’s assume a police officer stops the driver for speeding late one Friday or Saturday.
The police squad car take-down lights are visible in the rear-view mirror. Now what?
The Police Officer Approaches the Vehicle
Police are trained to observe all of your actions and note any that could be interpreted to support suspicion of impairment (and ignore the rest). At this phase these include:
- odor of alcohol
- eyes – “bloodshot, watery”
- couldn’t find or fumbled with driver’s license and insurance card
- admitted drinking, coming from a bar, a party
What are some potentially effective countermeasures to a DWI stop, then? If the window is not open, or open about an inch or so – that is plenty to pass the drivers license and insurance card through, but not enough to expose the odor of alcohol. You can refuse to lower the window to force the officer to make a command to do so, making it difficult for them to argue you did so voluntarily.
When speaking to the police officer through the almost closed window, the driver can avoid eye contact. This prevents the officer from being able to observe the cliché “bloodshot watery eyes” they imagine come only with drinking.
It’s a good idea to have the drivers license and insurance card ready in hand immediately after stopping, well before the police officer walks up to the vehicle to request those. They are in your hands already, which are in plain sight on the steering wheel.
If asked “have you been drinking tonight?” at a DWI stop, you are not required to answer or answer responsively. It is a bad idea to lie, for many reasons, so don’t. It is also a bad idea to admit facts the officer can use to build “probable cause” to ask you out of the car, or for arrest later. Where does that leave you? Silence, or change the subject.
If you were stopped for speeding, the police officer should just write you a speeding ticket and send you on your way – unless you give him or her probable cause or reasonable suspicion to justify asking you out of your vehicle.
Police ask you to step out of the car. Now what?
If you use the car or car door for support when getting out or walking, they will note that as suspicious. So don’t. They will ask you to walk behind your car, in front of theirs. Their many squad car lights will be on full brightness.
They will ask you to perform field exercises they like to call “Field Sobriety Tests.” These are not scientifically valid, though the government claims otherwise. Sober, trained police officers “fail” these “tests.” So how will you “pass” them? And who is your judge? The police officer!
What to do after a DWI stop, then?
Do not perform field exercises when asked to do so.
Do not do “Field Sobriety Tests!” Common ones include:
- Nine step walk and turn
- One leg stand
- Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (follow the pen or finger with eyes only, without moving head)
You cannot be required by law to do any of these. It would be a foolish mistake to willingly do any of them.
“Why won’t you do them?” “A lawyer told me that I don’t need to, and shouldn’t.”
“Preliminary Breath Test” (PBT)
Minnesota statutes authorize police officers to ask a driver to blow into a PBT machine – a portable breath-alcohol machine. But the law requires certain conditions, where there is a basis to suspect DWI or selected other alcohol-related offenses. Don’t worry about whether those preconditions exist at the side-of-the-road DWI stop. Your lawyer can do that later if need be.
What is important now is that a PBT machine report of 0.08 or more can provide probable cause to arrest for DWI, and so can “refusal” to perform a PBT. Refusing a PBT is not a crime. But would provide probable cause to arrest.
“Should I refuse the PBT at a DWI Stop?”
One can imagine a logical person, knowing that, deciding to refuse the PBT if they felt sure they would end up with a PBT report of well over .08, for example .16 or more. That person might feel they would have nothing to lose by refusing – since they would be arrested either way.
Compare that to a person who believed they would get a PBT report of less than 0.08. That person would be foolish to refuse it, since it could result in their not being arrested.
Keep in mind that the little PBT machine at the scene of the DWI stop (on the side of the road), is not the same as the big, evidentiary breath test machine at the police station.
If a person is arrested for DWI, they can be asked to submit a sample for alcohol testing again, even though they already submitted to a PBT. The PBT report is not admissible in a criminal DWI trial because they are deemed too unreliable and inaccurate for that purpose by the legislature.
If arrested, then what?
Every step further in the chain of events described above brings the driver closer to arrest (unless the PBT is less than 0.08). If the PBT reads too high, that and the rest will typically be followed with handcuffs and the back of the squad car.
Then normally the arresting officer will wait for back up or a tow truck, and leave for the police station once either arrives. Talking is not a good idea at any point, including while in the squad car.
At or near the police station (or hospital for a blood draw), the police normally read “the Minnesota Implied Consent Advisory” which informs the driver of certain legal rights.
The most important is your right to consult a lawyer before deciding whether to submit to chemical testing.
Pre-test Right to Legal Counsel
It is always, always, always – best to call a lawyer first! The police are required by law to help you do so before a breath test. If they fail to help you call a lawyer, the chemical test could be suppressed from evidence.
You should always make every effort to call a lawyer in this situation – even if you are still sitting in the squad car in handcuffs after a DWI stop! Tell the officer you want to call a lawyer. This part is usually recorded – a good thing.
Exception: If police get a search warrant for a blood or urine sample, they might not assist you in calling a lawyer first. But when in doubt, always ask to call a lawyer, anyway. Your lawyer will thank you later for preserving your potential rights.
Right to an Additional Test
The other important right is not mentioned in the “Implied Consent Advisory” by the cop. What is it? It is your Constitutional right to exculpatory evidence, as manifested in your statutory right to an “Additional Test.” Say what?
You have the legal right in Minnesota to a Second Test, after the you provide the sample requested by police.
In this situation, the arrested person should always, always, always request an Additional Test. If you do, the police are only required to give you a phone to use. You can use the phone to call whoever you need to call to arrange for an additional test. Any good DWI lawyer can also help provide contact information to get an Additional Test done quickly. Remember, time is of the essence with alcohol testing. Your test could defeat theirs, if done soon enough.
Stay safe out there.