Getting stopped for drunk driving is a serious offense. All 50 states define it a crime to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of over 0.08 percent. In order to determine if a person is driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI), the police officer will ask for one or more field sobriety tests. The tests are not compulsory in all the states, but in some refusal to comply will lead to the suspension or revoking of the driver license. Other legal consequences of driving under the influence include: jail sentences, confiscating license plates, or vehicle impounding.
The Standardized Field Sobriety Test, also known as SFST, is group of three tests that show signs of impairment and can establish a probable cause for arrest. The field sobriety tests came to be as a result of a research conducted by the Southern California Research Institute, at the request of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The three physical tests set up by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are:
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus
This is the first step of the entire field DUI testing procedures. Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is an involuntary movement of the eye that occurs as the eyes look at the side, which is intensified when a person is impaired by alcohol. It is the most common drunk test ever performed, dating from a time where advanced techniques of testing weren’t available to police officers. The test is simple and fairly reliable, so it maintained its popularity.
The police officer will ask you to follow an object, a pen or a flashlight, with your eyes, checking for pupil size differences and an equal pursuit. If nystagmus occurs, and there is a jerk in the movement of the eyes, this is a sign of inebriation, but can also indicate consumption of medication or drugs.
According to NHTSA and most of the drunk driving articles from trusted sources, the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test (HGN) is accurate in the classification of more than 88 percent of suspects.
Walk and turn
The second part of the DWI testing is the Walk and Turn, or the WAT, which looks for “divided attention”, which can give away an impaired person. The officer will give some simple instructions, and the driver must perform a few physical movements.
First, the subject must take nine steps on a straight line, walking heel-to-toe. After doing this, the suspect must turn on the spot and return to the starting point, in the same manner. There are eight standardized indicators of impairment:
The suspect cannot keep his balance while receiving instructions or begins walking before the police officer has finished speaking. The suspect stops mid-way to regain balance or steps off the line. Other “tells” are not touching heel-to-toe, using the arms to balance, making a wrong number of steps or an incorrect change of direction.
NHTSA research found that almost 79 percent of the suspects who raise two or more red flags on this test will have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or greater.
The One Leg Stand
The last of the standardized field sobriety testing guidelines is the one leg stand. The officer instructs the suspect to stand on one foot and raise the other to roughly six inches off the ground. The suspect is required to count with a clear voice by thousands (one thousand-one, one thousand-two and so on) and after about 30 seconds will be asked to put the foot back down.
There are four clues that can give away an impaired driver: swaying, using arms or hopping to maintain balance or, the most obvious of all, putting the foot down. The accuracy of this test, according to NHTSA, is about 83 percent.
The one leg stand test must be carried on on dry and level land. If the driver is wearing heels above two inches, is allowed to remove them. People who have middle ear or back problems will not be asked to perform it.
Overall, the three SFST test combined are showing a correct result in 91 percent of cases.
Even tough these figures seem very high, more recent studies have reported lower accuracy levels. The DUI DWI Foundation found that the horizontal gaze nystagmus test is right in only 77 of every 100 cases. The walk and turn test has an 68 percent accuracy and the one leg stand test is the least accurate (65%).
The results of the SFST tests can be used as evidence, but some defense attorneys argue that flunking the test without consuming any alcohol or illegal substances is quite common. This event is called a false positive.
During a DUI stop, the law enforcement officer may ask for other non-standardized tests, like counting fingers or standing with the feet together and tipping the head back, while silently counting to 30. This is called the Rhomberg Balance Test. It’s aim is to observe balance problems, but also the accuracy of the internal clock, as time slows down for inebriated persons and speeds up for those who took stimulants.
The suspect may be asked to touch the nose with a finger while having the eyes closed or even counting backwards from a specific number.
The officer must administer these tests in adequate lighting and on lever, otherwise the results will not hold up in court.
Also, elderly and overweight people often have some difficulties taking the physical tests when sober. In these cases, the officer will usually use the breathalyzer test.
Chemical DUI tests
If a law enforcement officer suspects that a person is driving while intoxicated the next step is the chemical test. Using either blood, breath or urine, these tests will determine the blood alcohol content. In most states, there is a particular time-frame for taking the test – a period of a few hours from the time the driver was pulled over.
It estimates the amount of ethanol in the breath, but it’s not entirely foolproof. Portable breathalyzers have to be calibrated and it can lead to false positive cases. Also, diabetics and people who follow some weight-loss diets can have elevated acetone levels in their system, which can deceive the Breathealyzer test.
Unlike the breath test, which estimates the blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the blood test is more common in drunk driving related cases.
It is usually taken at a hospital or at the police station and is the most accurate chemical sobriety evaluations used today. A blood test may be requested by the police officer or by the driver, in the scenario of a possible inaccurate breathalyzer test result.
Urine testing is the least accurate of the DUI tests and it can easily be deemed inadmissible. The urine test is also the least used detection method in DUI standardized procedures. Experts believe that the concentration of alcohol in the urine is not reliable and is rarely used in court.
Field sobriety test refusal
In the case of the physical tests, the driver can politely refuse to take them. There is no penalty for refusing, but most states require the driver to do a chemical test.
In the case of refusing taking the test, the sanctions are severe and possibly worse than if found guilty for failing the test. It could lead to the suspension for several months of the driver’s license or even jail time for multiple noncompliance.
The refusal can also be used as evidence against the driver in a trial, even though in other circumstances it can make the DUI case more hard to prove.
Here is a list of consequences for the refusal of taking a sobriety test in every state:
In Kentucky there’s a minimum 40 day license revocation, but if the driver is convicted of DUI and refused to take the tests, the jail penalty is doubled.
Alabama and Mississippi only impose a 90 day suspension of license, while in Nebraska the license is impounded for 90 days. In Maryland, the license is suspended for 120 days, while in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, Rhode Island (and 10-60 hours of community service plus a $200-$500 fine) and South Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming the sanction is of 180 days. In Louisiana and Oklahoma, the license will be revoked for 6 months and in New Jersey for 7 months.
The most common penalty is a one year license suspension or revoking, which will be enforced in Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho (and a $250 fine), Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon (fine of $500 – $1,000), Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
In Utah, refusal will lead to a 18 month license suspension, while in Alaska the penalty is 3 days in jail, a mandatory ignition interlock device and a fine up to $1,500. In Nevada, the officer can use force to obtain blood samples for the suspect.
Penalties get more severe for drivers with prior offences.
Drunk driving arrest
There are many signs that law enforcement officers look for before pulling someone over for suspicion of DUI. The most frequent are reckless driving or changing lanes erratically, ignoring speed limits of traffic signs. There are also other relevant clues for the officers when determining probable cause. Driving without headlights at night, for example, or failure tu signal a turn. Failure to respond to the signals of the officer’s signals or stopping in the lane for no apparent reason.
If the officer believes there is probable cause, he will make an arrest for DUI. The suspect is not obligated to answer questions if an attorney is not present, but should cooperate with the officer. Resisting arrest could bring additional charges. After the arrest, the suspect is brought to the police station. Here, the procedure states that the driver will be fingerprinted and photographed, searched and asked questions.
The case then goes to court, where a preliminary hearing will be held in order for the judge to determine if there is a probable cause or enough evidence to maintain the DUI charges. If so, a trial date will be scheduled.
Punishment for breaking DUI laws
The sentence mainly depends on whether or not the suspect pleaded guilty, but also on the level of blood alcohol content at the time of arrest and on whether the driver is a first-time offender. Injuries or property damages caused by the driver could lead to additional charges.
First time offenders face either a fine, jail time, probation or community service and a suspended license. A DUI conviction could remain on your criminal record forever. Repeat offenders will most likely lose their license, get a jail term, ordered to attend counseling and have ignition interlocks placed on their cars. Ignition interlocks are devices used in some states to test sobriety before starting to drive a car. The automobile will not start if the driver has imbibed alcohol.
DUI plates: The State of Ohio began, in 1967, to issue special license plates to DWI offenders. This measure was, however, rarely requested by judges so in 2004, the plates were issued by state law to all convicted drunk drivers. The DUI plates have a different color. A similar program is ongoing in Minnesota.
A DUI conviction brings a few obligations for the person who was found guilty. They include paying a ticket, court costs and attorney fees. The installation of the Ignition Interlock Device and its maintenance fees also come out of the convicted person’s pocket.
Dangers of Driving under the Influence
In a study published in 2003, more than 1.4 million Americans were arrested for driving while intoxicated. It is believed that accidents related to DUI cause $45 billion in damages each year. Also, the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) published a report in 2005 which states that in a five year period more than 103.000 people were killed in alcohol-related car crashed in the United States. So, beyond the financial damages that come from DUI accidents, we should also keep in mind that actual lives are lost due to irresponsible driving as well, and this is a consequence impossible to repair once the accident takes place.
Unfortunately, most of the cases of drunk accidents involve a teen, and the news are full of horrible reports on recent accidents that lead to young lives being lost over a night of partying. If one were to read in any newspaper or online magazine all about the teenage car accidents that take place every month, we’d probably not to let our children ever learn how to drive. As a personal note, I am rather scared of all the similar news involving an unlicensed cowboy behind the wheel, but that’s already a different story and bit of a cliche as well.
Alcohol is not the only substance that can destroy lives in a car accident. According to a research from the New England Journal of Medicine, 45 per cent of drivers stopped by police were under the influence of marijuana, and a quarter tested positive for cocaine. Lack of sleep is another big danger factor. The impairment caused by the absence of rest is as hazardous as being legally drunk, so please refrain from driving if you know you’re tired, even if this is a condition harder to prove legally.
The consumption of alcohol impairs judgment, slows down reaction time and movement and has a detrimental effect on coordination and vision. Alcohol-impaired drivers have great difficulties concetrating on multiple tasks at a time.The rate of alcohol-related driving fatalities has dropped considerably in the last decades, resulting in a 65 per cent decrease from 1982 (record keeping began) to 2013, when there were 3.2 deaths per 100,000 people. In 1991, the rate was almost double: 6 people were killed in a drunk driving crash for every 100,000 people living in the US. In 2013, an estimated 10,076 people died in crashes involving a driver with an an illegal BAC out of the total of 32,719 people that lost their lives in traffic accidents.
Lesser known facts about drunk driving
On average, a drunk driver will get behind the wheel for at least 70 times under the influence before being arrested for the first time. The US has a no tolerance policy for drivers under the age of 21. The penalties that follow driving while intoxicated could lead to the loss of license, jail or heavy fines.
Car accidents are also the largest cause of death among teenagers, and one of every three such fatal crashes involve alcohol or other substances. These statistics paint a pretty grim picture of the hazards of alcohol consumption in the case of teens with a driver’s license. Also, males are two times more likely to drive under the influence than females. Roughly one third of drivers arrested or convicted of DUI will repeat their offence.
The holiday with the largest number of drunk driving related fatal accidents is Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve coming in second. A driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 is 11 times more likely to be involved in an accident that a driver who is sober.
Research shows that only 1% of the 159 million cases of drunk driving that occur every year in the United States are leading towards an arrest. Fatal collisions which involve drunk drivers are four times more likely to happen at the night than during daytime. Almost a third of motorcyclists killed in fatal accidents in 2012 had a BACs of at least 0.08%.
Around a third of all Americans will be involved in a collision related to alcohol at some point during their life. Take care, and drive safely!