In some DUI cases, a person will be told or otherwise know why he or she was pulled over. Other times, a person may not know, or will be given a reason that doesn’t seem “right,” at least as he or she recalls the traffic stop. I was recently doing some research about traffic stop protocol for police, and as part of my investigation, I came across a nifty little publication from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It is available in PDF format, and I encourage the reader to download The NHTSA Visual detection of DUI Drivers PDF and review it. Although it is relevant to multiple audiences, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s primary application is for police officers. Even so, because it is mostly short “bullet point” lines, and a quick, easy (and interesting) read, I think everyone with a connection to DUI/OWI matters should read it, especially if you’re facing a drunk driving charge.
One of the most common reasons given for a DUI traffic stop is that the person was swerving, weaving, or otherwise having a hard time “holding” his or her lane. According to the research quoted in the NTHSA article, a person who is weaving or weaving across lane lines has more than a 50% probability of being under the influence of alcohol. Many times, a person will offer an alternative explanation for why his or her vehicle was swerving or weaving like attempting to retrieve a cellphone that fell off the seat. Here’s an important fact: Even if you had your own in-car camera and could prove that you were swerving because you were reaching to pick up an item that had fallen on the passenger side floor, the officer is merely required to give (the technical term used in the law is “articulate”) reasonable suspicion for pulling you over. This means that even if you could prove you swerved for a legitimate reason, it is what the officer him or herself sees that matters, and if he or she saw your vehicle swerving, then that’s usually enough for a “reasonable suspicion.”
If you’re in need of a lawyer for a DUI charge, this is a real fork in the road: Of all the areas in which one can “beat” a DUI case, the traffic stop and circumstances surrounding it tend to be the most fruitful. The flip side is that of all the money and time wasted on “too good to be true” lawyers and unsuccessful legal challenges, a lot if occurs right at this point, as well. To complicate matters even more, your position as a client/consumer means that you are looking for a lawyer to rely upon in making an accurate assessment of your situation. If you knew all the technicalities at play here, then you’d be the DUI lawyer. I wish there was a better way to make this all clear and easy, but the best thing you can do is exercise good consumer skills, do your homework, and check around. The internet is full of lawyers. Some promise too much, others (especially the bargain or “cut rate” types) are clearly poised to deliver too little, and many, while perhaps well intentioned, just don’t fully grasp the realities at play. We should, therefore, dig a little deeper…
First off, while I generally believe the saying that “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” if you really want to be able to choose the right lawyer and understand what is happening in your DUI case, it is important to become familiar with a few things. A physician friend of mine has a cartoon of a sign on a doctor’s office door that says, “The patient will be charged EXTRA for annoying the doctor with a self-diagnosis gotten off the internet.” There is a difference, however, between learning a few things to get the general idea about something and thinking a few hours on the internet practically makes one a doctor or a lawyer. Yet for all that you can learn, here is the boiled-down reality to DUI cases: They don’t dismiss themselves, so you need a lawyer who knows what to look for and who will look long and hard. By the same token, most DUI cases don’t get dismissed, anyway. It may sound like bunch of “abracadabra,” but the best outcome in any DUI case occurs when the lawyer combines a thorough knowledge of the facts of the case and the law with the skillful management of perception, science and time. This means get the case dismissed, if possible, or wrestle with it to produce the very best results in every other circumstance.
Still, about the best chance you have of “knocking out” a DUI charge will come from the traffic stop. As noted earlier, the law requires a police officer to “articulate” reasonable suspicion to stop a driver. One benefit of obtaining the police car dash-cam video is the possibility that it will support – or undermine – the officer’s stated reason for pulling you over. I use the word “possibility” for a reason, because sometimes the video does not capture the behavior the officer claims to have seen. Remember, the video camera lens is focused straight ahead from the patrol car windshield. Still, the chance of disproving the officer, or, as is more frequently the case, the opportunity to see for one’s self the driving that led to the stop, is a valuable thing. I’ve had plenty of clients watch their video and, after a few minutes, wave their hands and say, “I’ve seen enough.”
In the course of watching countless dash cam videos, one thing becomes clear: Most of the weaving that leads to traffic stops is rather clear and obvious. As is sometimes the case, both Ann, my senior assistant, Ashlee, my paralegal and I will watch the video, usually separately, just for the purpose of having a different perspective and a different set of eyes take it in. It is not often that we ever see a stop for weaving where the video, assuming that there is good footage from directly behind the client, doesn’t show the car obviously swerving. There are exceptions; if there weren’t, I would hardly bother wasting all of our time watching these things. In some cases, the video is not really helpful one way or the other, so with absent footage to disprove what the officer said, the stop will almost certainly stand up in court.
When you cut to the heart of the matter, it is the case that the officer can very often just “say” something and it stands. It’s almost an exercise in futility for a lone driver to attempt to challenge a stop where the officer, without video, claims that he observed the driver weave back and forth in his or her lane numerous times, and, based upon his or her patrol experience, reasonably suspected that the driver could be intoxicated. About all the driver can say is, “No, I did not weave; I was driving just fine. You’re lying.” Good luck with that, but trust me, at least this far: Don’t pay some lawyer to use that as your defense!
And to be fair, the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are out there doing exactly what they’re paid to do. When you really take a step back, is it that hard to believe that person whose bodily alcohol content was over (and often way over) the legal limit, and therefore legally drunk, had a hard time driving straight? There is an element of “common sense” to all of this that makes the point rather clearly; we are encouraged, after all, to report suspected drunk drivers using our cell phones! In fact, one of the more indisputable (and interesting) things about alcohol is that it impairs a person’s ability to self-assess, meaning that people very often don’t “feel” as drunk as they are. When you really think about it, the world would be full of rotten people if every DUI driver “knew” he or she was too drunk to drive, but did so anyway. The costly mistake here is a mistake in judgment, at that moment when a person, even if he or she feels a little “buzzed” says to him or herself, “I’m okay,” or, “I’m not that bad.” At the time that assessment is made, and however mistaken it may have been, the person probably completely believed it. This is why drunk driving cases just often “happen“.
There is really a lot to all of this, and I will keep exploring this and related issues in a loose series of DUI articles in the coming weeks. For now, though, we have opened our discussion by looking at the most common reason given for pulling someone over in a DUI case. This issue requires more examination, however, both on this blog, in future installments, and certainly in your case, if you’re facing a DUI. If you’ve been arrested for a DUI charge anywhere in Macomb, Oakland or Wayne county and are looking to hire a lawyer, do your homework, read as much as you can and then pick up the phone and call around. Make sure you contact my office, as well, to see how your questions are answered. We open Monday through Friday, from 8:30 until 5:00, and can be reached at 248-986-9700 or 586-465-1980. We’re here to help.