The Devil is in the Details: Proving (or not) DUI at Trial
“I observed a strong odor of alcohol emanating from the driver, and he had bloodshot, glassy eyes.” If I had a dollar for every time I read that quote in a DUI police report, I wouldn’t have to spend my time writing blog posts. Life for Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia DUI lawyers is nothing if not predictable. No matter what details an arresting officer puts in his report, they always boil down to this: the driver looked drunk, smelled drunk, sounded drunk, and acted drunk. Apparently the officer could be blind or deaf, but still decide the driver was driving under the influence. And well, sometimes they’re right. But sometimes, and very often, they’re dead wrong. Regardless, the police report generally reads the same.
So if an officer takes the stand at trial, and testifies that the DUI defendant was drunk, drunk, drunkedy, drunk, that’s the end of story, guilty verdict, dui conviction, walking to work, right? Not so fast. Because the devil, as they say, is in the details. And in D.C. DUI cases, the details are everything, because a police officer cannot simply take the stand at trial and give the opinion that the driver was drunk, and was therefore under the influence. The officer can only testify to what he observed, from the time he first saw the DUI defendant in the car, to the time that defendant gets locked in a cell. The judge or jury will only get to hear about the officer’s observations, and only they get to decide whether the driver was under the influence.
The observations that the arresting officer will testify to can be divided in 3 categories: 1) driving behavior; 2) attitude, appearance, and demeanor, and; 3) performance on the field sobriety tests. What causes an officer to stop a DUI defendant is very important. Reasons that help your case include, broken taillight, fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror, tinted windows, and very minor traffic offenses. Reasons that hurt your case are driving at night without headlights, weaving, driving way too slowly, and vomiting out your window. Running into something doesn’t help your case either.
Next, the officer will testify about what he witnessed after he approached your car. How did you look, how, did you smell, how did you act. Did you have trouble getting your license out of your purse or wallet, or getting your registration out of the glove compartment? When asked to exit your car, did you glide like a supermodel, or did you fall on your face. It matters. And through it all, were you pleasant and cooperative, or did you curse like a sailor? Everything you did, and everything you said will come out in court.
Whether they should or not (and a future blog will discuss this), judges give perhaps the most weight to the officer’s testimony regarding a DUI defendant’s performance on the Field Sobriety Tests. The three standard FST’s given by officers are the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, Walk and Turn, and One-legged stand. The first test requires you to follow the officer’s finger or pencil with your eyes. He is looking for your eyes to behave in a certain way, and will claim in court that the behavior indicates intoxication. It doesn’t necessarily, but that’s what the officer will say. Next, the officer will have you walk on a real or imaginary line, with your hands at your side. He’ll ask you to turn around, and walk back. Any misstep will be used as evidence that you are intoxicated. You may not be intoxicated, but again, the officer will testify otherwise. Finally, you will be asked to balance on one leg for a period of time. If you sway, put your foot down, or fail to put your arms in the right place, you guessed it, the officer will say you’re drunk.
Fortunately, your experienced D.C. DUI lawyer will be with you at trial, and will get a chance to ask the officer much more detailed questions about his observations than he is comfortable answering. Your lawyer will bring out the good facts about your behavior, appearance, and FST performance, and the judge will get the other side of the story. More on that, coming soon. . .
In the meantime, contact an experienced DUI lawyer at JPMLegal if you’ve been arrested for a D.C. DUI.