Home

A sober walk through a DUI traffic stop

Almost every campus law enforcement agency in the United States has had to deal with the problem of intoxicated drivers on campus property.

At the UW Bothell/Cascadia Community College campus, where the student population can reach about 3,000, campus safety officers have never encountered such a DUI-related incident. Should a driver be stopped for such a suspected offense, the Bothell Police Department would be notified.

However, at the UW main campus, police officers with the UWPD deal with over 35,000 students, faculty and staff on any given day.

During football games or special events at Husky Stadium, the on-campus population can increase to about 72,000 people.

No matter how they’re referred to (“driving under the influence,” “driving while intoxicated,” “drunk driving,” “DUI”), they’re all the same: in Washington, it’s known simply as “driving under the influence,” a gross misdemeanor.

In order for a proper DUI prosecution, a police officer will observe a driving pattern or moving traffic violation/offense that will serve as “probable cause.” That’s why a police officer may follow a suspected intoxicated driver at a safe distance behind: they’re observing a driver’s pattern to determine if their suspicion may be correct.

Officers may have a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is driving while impaired, however. After personally witnessing a traffic offense, they will have developed “probable cause” to lawfully stop the vehicle and investigate their suspicions.

Upon initial contact, the police officer is on an investigative fact-finding mission for any physical signs, evidence, clues or indications associated with intoxication.

A person’s speech and physical movements are closely observed. A person’s eyes are probably the most important telltale indication of an impaired driver: the eyes do not lie.

The officer will ask some simple questions. An operator’s driving pattern, coupled with their physical symptoms, their answers and any scents or smells of alcohol from the driver’s breath or inside the vehicle, will allow the officer to form his or her professional opinion of whether or not to reasonably suspect that the driver may have been operating a motor vehicle on a public highway either impaired or intoxicated from alcohol or drugs, or a combination of both.

If the answer is “yes,” the officer does have reasonable suspicion to believe the driver is impaired based on their training and experience as a police officer, and will legally continue to the next investigative step.

The officer will ask the driver to exit his or her vehicle, where he can further observe the driver’s physical coordination, speech and general orientation to the location of the traffic stop.

The officer will then explain to the driver that he needs to conduct some physical coordination tests.

Some police officers have undoubtedly encountered a driver who will demand at this point to speak with his or her attorney prior to participating in further tests.

A person being investigated for gross misdemeanor driving does not have a constitutional right to consult have an attorney present before the officer administers any of the field balance tests.

As a condition of receiving a driver’s license, a person has given his or her written promise (the signature on the license), that if stopped while operating a vehicle by a law enforcement officer in the state for suspicion of driving under the influence, if asked, he or she must submit to tests to determine if a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent (the legal limit in Washington state) or higher within two hours of driving.

A police officer will inform the suspected intoxicated or impaired driver that he or she has the right to refuse to submit to a test of blood-alcohol level; however, a refusal is an automatic one-year driver’s license suspension.

Based on the results of the tests and physical observations, the officer determines whether he has reasonable grounds to believe that the driver was operating a vehicle or was in actual physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating liquor or drug. If the answer is “yes,” the officer will then request an additional in-the-field test known as a preliminary breath test.

Intoxicated or impaired drivers are requested to blow into the small device at the scene of the traffic stop to assist the investigating officer in determining the driver’s blood-alcohol content. Although the results are not admissible in criminal courts, the results may be used in civil hearings.

Once all field tests have been administered, the officer determines whether he believes the person was operating the vehicle or in actual physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of liquor or any drug. If the officer believes the driver to be either intoxicated or impaired as a result of the sobriety tests, he will then place the person under arrest for a gross misdemeanor.

The police officer will advise the driver that according to state law, he or she is required to submit to a chemical test to determine blood-alcohol concentration.

The two legally-approved ways to determine a person’s blood-alcohol concentration in Washington state are either from a blood test at a local hospital or a chemical breath test, known as a “breathalyzer,” most likely conducted at police station or a county sheriff’s booking facility.

The choice of either a blood test or breath test is up to the driver. With the “breathalyzer” test, the results are known immediately and are admissible as evidence in a criminal proceeding. Once again, the driver has the right to refuse either chemical test; however, a refusal is an automatic driver’s license or permit suspension for one year.

While at the breath test location, if the driver blows a 0.08 percent or higher, he or she is then booked into jail for DUI.

Police officers are not required to read DUI suspects Miranda Rights. I’ve had multiple DUI suspects in my career tell me I’ve “blown” their DUI case because I failed to read them their rights.

Wrong. I’ve had many misdemeanor DUI suspects demand that they be allowed to have their attorney present for any field sobriety tests. Some have demanded that their attorney be present during tests.

I remember back in the 1990s, when a then-famous sports star rolled and destroyed his sports car on a public highway. He was standing on the shoulder of the road talking on his cell phone. The driver said he was driving alone and had just left a nightclub where he admitted to having a couple drinks.

The highway was basically deserted, and I smelled the odor of alcohol on his breath.

He told me he would not be participating in any field sobriety or balance tests until his attorney, agent and a team official had been notified and were present. He demanded I wait until each of them had been contacted and had responded to the scene. He kept telling me to wait. It was obvious he believed he could dictate the direction of the investigation. It didn’t work.

He agreed after being arrested that he would submit to a chemical test to determine his blood-alcohol content. He chose a blood test, but upon arrival at the hospital, he decided to refuse all chemical tests. He was convicted in criminal court and had his driver’s license suspended for his refusal to submit to a chemical test when requested by a police officer.

These types of encounters with suspected DUI drivers happen every day across the United States. Now you know a little more about how and why cops do what they do.

Please read our Comment policy.