The Honest Truth About Drunk Driving in Minnesota
One of the most common crimes on the Iron Range, and across the country generally, is driving under the influence (DUI). According to the Department of Public safety, in 2015, about 25,000 DWI arrests were made and approximately 21,250 of those have or will result in a conviction. Since 2006, though, DWI arrests and subsequent convictions have fallen almost 40%. But what happens prior to the conviction and what are the common considerations in DWI cases?
From a defense attorney standpoint, a DUI case begins at the moment a police officer sees the vehicle he or she will eventually pull over or is otherwise called to the scene. To stop a vehicle, a police officer must have “reasonable, articulable suspicion,” which is an evidentiary burden, such as “probable cause” and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, “reasonable, articulable suspicion” is a very low standard, even lower than “probable cause.” Any traffic infraction, including an equipment malfunction, can be the basis for a stop—no questions asked. Even if no traffic violation occurs, an officer can still legally stop a vehicle if his suspicion is “specific and articulable,” and the officer’s training and experience can weigh into this factor as well.
Once the vehicle has stopped, a second set of considerations arise if the officer has reason to expand the search beyond the immediate reason of the stop. An officer may ask general questions and use his senses—sight, touch, scent, and hearing—in combination with this experience and training, to determine whether or not his expansion of the search is reasonable. The probable cause standard is used at this point. That expansion of the search usually results in a preliminary breath test, the results of which can be used for making an arrest but are inadmissible as evidence in a trial.
At this point, an officer may arrest a person on the suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol (or drugs). An arrest must be based on “probable cause,” which is a higher standard than “reasonable articulable suspicion,” but still relatively low compared to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Probable cause is defined as when “the facts would lead a person of ordinary care and prudence to hold an honest and strong suspicion that the driver was under the influence.” See State v. Hendricks. An officer only needs one objective indication of intoxication to constitute probable cause. However, in most circumstances an officer usually has more than one, such as bloodshot and watery eyes, slurred speech, flushed complexion, balance and coordination problems, strong odors of alcohol, and admission to previously drinking or taking drugs. When these facts are considered together, including the results of a field sobriety test and preliminary breath test, the officer can usually provide a court enough evidence to determine that probable cause existed. The chemical test at the stationhouse is the evidence that would be used against a defendant at trial, but that defendant has the right to a third-party test after the police have tested the suspect.
It should also be noted that statements made during the period of time from the stop until the point of arrest are usually not protected under Miranda (“You have the right to remain silent…”), wherein a criminal suspect has the right to remain silent. This issue is outside the scope of this article, but it is fact-driven and usually depends on whether or not a person’s freedom is being limited in some manner, such as being placed in handcuffs or being told not to leave the scene by a police officer.
Each of the standards discussed is a question of law that must be examined by a lawyer to know whether or not an issue exists. In many cases, the police have properly followed all of the steps and have met the proper evidentiary burden for stop, search, and arrest. However, a layperson may not know this because they feel that they failed the breathalyzer, but that does not matter. The whole case can be thrown out if the officer illegally stops someone or does not have enough evidence to expand the search to a field sobriety test. Everything up to the point of the breath test really does matter!