How do the police know if they should arrest someone for DUI?

In South Carolina our DUI law makes it illegal to drive while impaired. Breathalyzer or other tests for alcohol or drugs aren’t available to police until after they have decided to make an arrest, so police frequently have to rely on educated guesses. That means a lot of time they can decide to arrest someone who isn’t guilty, and probably also sometimes choose to let guilty people go without charges.

The things that police most frequently rely upon are:

Driving Behavior – Police are trained to look out for certain driving behaviors as meaning someone might be impaired. These are things like swerving, driving slow, or failing to turn on headlights. When police see certain types of driving behavior, they can think that a DUI is likely occurring.

Personal Contact – After a car is pulled over the police officer will initiate personal contact with the driver. This usually begins at the driver’s window with a request for the driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. Police consider things like the smell of alcohol on someone’s breath, nervousness, slurred speech, or difficulty with handing over the requested documents.

Field Sobriety Tests – By the time police request field sobriety tests, they have almost certainly decided that an arrest is either inevitable or very likely. But for an officer who has maintained an open mind up to this point performance on the tests can be a deciding factor. The standard three tests are the horizontal gaze nystagmus (looking into your eyes), walk and turn, and one leg stand.

Admissions and Confessions – Many DUI arrests begin with the officer’s question “have you had anything to drink?” A response that admits having something to drink is usually considered very significant by the police. Even when someone only admits to having “one or two” the officer might think that means “ten or twelve.” Admissions to using prescription or recreational drugs is also considered important by the police.

Time and Location - There is also the reality that what time of day someone is stopped is also a factor. At 3:00 P.M. many police officer’s aren’t thinking “DUI” when they pull over a car for speeding, so they aren’t always paying attention for indicators. At 3:00 A.M. however it’s a different story, with police officers likely evaluating everyone stopped for a possible DUI charge. Same thing with the location: someone pulling out of church might get evaluated differently by the police than someone pulling out of the bar.

Police can, and frequently are, mistaken about when they should arrest someone for DUI. As a result people can be arrested based on false or unfair assumptions or guesses made at impairment. Fortunately the legal system provides a great many number of safe-guards and protections against an actual conviction under those circumstances. Most importantly the legal standard by which police can make an arrest (called probable cause) is set much lower than the legal standard to conviction someone (called beyond a reasonable doubt).

If you feel that the police officer got it wrong the first thing you should do is to contact a lawyer before your court date. Retaining a lawyer can make available to you the specific defense strategies necessary to counteract the officer’s assumption of impairment, and to also ensure that your rights were fully protected during the arrest process. The Law Office of James R. Snell, Jr., LLC, represents DUI clients in Lexington, Columbia and also throughout South Carolina.
Categories: DUI
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