What to do when a traffic stop turns into a DUI investigation
As a DUI defense attorney and a former prosecutor, I’m used to interacting with police officers. Usually those interactions are in court or during a pretrial interview where the attorney is in control. Recently, I was pulled over by police for going 7 miles per hour over the speed limit. The police officer wasn’t looking for speeders and didn’t intend on giving out tickets. He was a member of a DUI task force that night. A DUI task force is when a number of law enforcement officers focus on a certain area with the purpose of investigating and ultimately arresting individuals they determine are driving under the influence. The techniques of a DUI task force is similar to what is used by fishermen who use a net: cast a wide net and they’ll eventually catch what they’re looking for. Fishermen using a net often end up catching things they aren’t looking for. Similarly, police officers end up stopping and investigating innocent people. My experience being caught up in the DUI net reminded me of the fundamentals people should understand when interacting with law enforcement generally as well as fundamentals when the routine traffic stop turns into a DUI investigation. These are:
- Be Calm;
- Be Safe;
- Be Polite;
- Be Prepared, and
- Be Informed.
My encounter with the DUI enforcement net took place on around 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening. My wife was the only other passenger in the car when the inside of our car was flooded with the flashing red and blue lights which can only be identified as coming from a police car. The message these familiar lights send is clear: pull over. No matter how many times a person interacts with police officers being pulled over can cause nervousness and some anxiety (Be Calm). I slowed down, rolled the front windows down, turned right onto a side residential road and put my car into park (Be Safe). I didn’t turn the car off and I didn’t reach for anything. When the officer came to my side of the car I smiled and waited (Be Polite). After a few seconds he asked how fast I was going. I responded, “the speed limit.” He stated that he believed I was going 7 miles over the speed limit. I stayed silent.
At this point, I hadn’t reached for anything or offered any information other than saying the words “the speed limit.” He asked for my license which I produced. He asked where I was going and I answered “home.” He asked for my registration, but not my insurance. I politely asked him if he would be kind enough to shine his flashlight in the glove box and politely asked my wife to retrieve the registration and insurance, which we keep in a designated spot in the glove box which is easy to identify and retrieve (Be Prepared). I sat without moving or saying anything. He asked me if I would step out of the car to talk with him. It was at this point I realized this was not a traffic stop, but was a DUI investigation. I felt very confident that a ticket for going 7 miles per hour over the speed limit wasn’t in my future and wanting to be on my way quickly, I agreed to speak with him out of the car. He asked if I had been drinking. I responded with one word, “no.” He told me he thought he smelled alcohol. I smiled and told him he was mistaken.
He asked if he could conduct an “eye test”. I’m very familiar with this eye test. It’s called the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, or HGN for short. When a person consumes enough alcohol, the eyes will bounce like a dry windshield wiper over a dry window. This is just one of a number of field sobriety tests officers attempt to administer during their investigation. I informed him I don’t submit to tests, but will submit to a chemical test as required by the MVD (Be Informed). He thanked me and informed me that wouldn’t be necessary. I left without being asked additional questions and without a ticket.
My experience highlighted the importance of following these fundamentals:
- Be Calm – This is obviously easier said than done because the first emotional reaction when being pulled over by a police officer is usually nervousness or anxiety. Knowing and following the remaining fundamentals, however, can give you the tools to remain calm and in control.
- Be Safe – Many individuals feel vulnerable when they are pulled over by a police officer and begin to panic. Do not let this moment of anxiety create a dangerous situation. You can drive carefully until you find a spot that is safe for you and the officer. If you are in the city and on a major roadway, find a parking lot or another road you can safely turn into. If you are on a highway, pull over as far as practical to give your vehicle and the officer space. The officer will likely appreciate that you were conscious of your own safety, the safety of other drivers, and the officer’s safety. Before pulling over, you may want to roll your windows down, especially if a passenger has been drinking. If the officer smells any odor of alcohol in the car, he will begin a DUI investigation.
- Be Polite – It almost never benefits a person to be combative with a police officer. I recommend people attempt to be quietly or silently polite. This means having a pleasant appearance or smile without saying anything. The officer will provide directions or ask questions, usually related to getting a license and registration. Part of being polite is not making any movements. One of the most dangerous things a police officer will do is to perform a traffic stop. They don’t know if the person they are encountering is dangerous or not. Do not begin to get your license or other documents. Simply sit and wait. Doing nothing is actually being courteous to the officer and helps the officer feel safer.
- Be Prepared – Virtually every traffic stop, regardless of the eventual outcome, begins with the officer requesting your license, registration, and insurance card. You should be prepared by carrying your license in the same spot in your wallet, in a purse or bag, or somewhere else where you can easily and confidently retrieve it when asked. You should be prepared by having your registration and current insurance information in a designated place which is easy to locate and retrieve when asked to provide it. Officers believe that the more difficulty a person has in finding their license, registration, and insurance, the more likely it is that the person is impaired. Being prepared with your documents will also help you follow the first fundamental: Be calm.
Part of being prepared is to have access to an experienced dui defense attorney who specializes in criminal law. You should have an attorney saved in your phone that will respond to calls at any time of the day or night.
- Be Informed – Understand what you are required to do and what you are not required to do when pulled over by a police officer. You must identify yourself by providing your license, registration, and current insurance. You do not have to answer any questions and should not answer any questions about whether you have been drinking, how much you have been drinking, or if you feel impaired. Remembering to be polite, you can politely inform the officer that you don’t answer questions. Saying something similar to, “I’m sorry officer, but I don’t answer questions” with a pleasant smile on your face can be very effective.
Do not submit to any field sobriety tests such as the “eye test” the walk and turn, the finger to nose, or the one leg stand. The only test you are required to submit to is a chemical test, such as a breath test or a blood test. These tests are not performed on the side of the road, but require the officer to take you to a separate location to either blow into a larger machine or in order to draw blood. When you obtained your license, you agreed to provide a sample of your breath or blood. If a person refuses to provide a breath or blood test, their license will be suspended for one year and the law enforcement officer will obtain a warrant to obtain a blood sample anyway, so my recommendation is to refuse any tests other than a breath or blood test.
Remember, it is not a crime to drink and drive. It is only a crime to drive if drinking has impaired one’s ability to drive to at least the slightest degree. However, officers will investigate a DUI if they believe any alcohol was consumed.
You have a right to contact an attorney. As stated above, you should have an attorney saved in your phone that will respond to calls at any time of the day or night. The criminal defense team at Rowley, Chapman & Barney have attorneys available 24/7. You can call Matthew Long after hours at 480-496-2094.
Being pulled over by a police officer will never be an enjoyable experience, especially when a traffic stop turns into a DUI or other investigation. These fundamentals in dealing with law enforcement will provide you with some tools to help protect you when encountering police. Contact an experienced DUI defense attorney by calling (480) 496-2094 (24/7), I can help you.