There are few things more frightening to than seeing blue lights in a rear view mirror. Our hearts race in our chests as we try to immediately look at check our speed, apply brakes, and wonder why it is our car being pulled over now. Why us? Why now? We pull over with the hope that the officer whom we encounter will be professional. Will he be nice? We feel terrified regardless of whether or not we were breaking the law in the first place. As we sit waiting for the officer to approach our vehicle, we can feel that sense of fear grow inside us.
A traffic stop is the most likely way the everyday law-abiding citizen may come in contact with a police officer. It is a nerve-racking experience as all of us know. Even if you are the unusual person who has never been pulled over for speeding or some other traffic infraction, you can imagine the anxiety that comes with any traffic stop. It may be that we are only being pulled over for speeding and that the worst likely outcome is a ticket.
A ticket may just mean the inconvenience of a court date. Will we have to actually go to court? What will happen to our insurance rate? These are the types of questions that run through our heads. However, once the officer takes our license and registration, things may become more tricky if he asks, “How much have you had to drink tonight?”
This is when panic sets in. It may be that we have just come from dinner and had a glass of wine. It may be that we were at the lake and drank a few beers, but that was hours ago. This very question terrifies most of us and makes us feel very defensive. What should we say? Should we be completely honest? Are we going to have to take tests?
Suddenly, we find ourselves on the side of the road, nervously performing tests before an officer and unsure as to what he or she is looking for. The officer is professional, but his tone is very strict and he seems annoyed by questions. After all, we only ask questions because we want to make sure we perform the tests correctly. If we screw up at all, we know what it will mean. We will be arrested.
DUI is the most likely way that many people who have never had a run-in with the law may find themselves subject to an arrest and a night in jail. These days, there are so many serious collisions, injuries, and deaths associated with intoxicated drivers that law enforcement agencies across the nation have cracked down, arresting scores of drivers, many of whom were not in violation of the law.
It is not illegal to drink and to drive in the State of Georgia. It is illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol or some other drug to the extent that a driver is a “less safe” driver. These are very specific and meaningful terms under the law. It is also illegal to operate a vehicle when a driver’s blood alcohol concentration is 0.08% or greater. This is true regardless of whether or not the driver appears intoxicated or does anything to indicate that he or she has been drinking.
With respect to the traffic stop, more and more questions run through our heads. We don’t know whether or not we should take the tests we are asked to take. Despite the sense that we did everything right and only drank one or two beers, the officer may end up making an arrest. Once the officer puts handcuffs on, we may worry about what will happen to our car. When will we get to call a lawyer? How long will we be in jail? Who can we call to ask these questions?
And then it hits us…we are alone. For most of the big decisions in all our lives, we rely on our spouses, our parents, our friends, and others to guide us to make good, responsible decisions. For this moment, we are alone. Just then, the officer reads us a warning and asks if we will consent to take a breath test. The handcuffs bite into our wrists as we try to listen to and think about what he just read. Wanting to comply with his request and unsure as to what happens if we say no, we agree to take the test.
This is just one possible situation out of millions. DUI cases are very common. In addition to the fact that good law enforcement agencies want to protect communities from needless deaths and injuries, DUI offenses also provide a huge financial benefit to courts and governments through fines and fees. These are the most serious traffic offenses there are and have the most serious consequences.
For these reasons, officers do not take chances with drivers that they suspect to be driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While this sounds like a statement no reasonable person would take issue with, the fact is that all officers are not equally trained. Just as some plumbers are better than others, some doctors are more capable than others, and some lawyers are better at what they do than other lawyers, some officers are not as well trained or good at their jobs as others.
Although all law enforcement officers in Georgia are certified by the State and go through mandatory training, many law enforcement officers do not appreciate the technical requirements of the law when it comes to DUI traffic stops. It is extremely important that the officers observe and document what might seem like insignificant facts and circumstances in a DUI stop. After all, if the officer decides to leave out a step, or if he or she fails to properly instruct a driver as to how to perform a certain test, the results can be disastrous for the driver. No driver would ever want to be wrongfully convicted of a DUI when he or she was not in fact driving in violation of the law. This places a great deal of trust in our officers’ judgment, and there are times when this trust is betrayed due to a lack of training, lack of understanding, or unwillingness to comply with the proper procedures.
I often explain to clients that defending a DUI charge can be more complicated than defending a murder charge. Although the consequences are much less severe, the first eye-witness to take the stand in almost every single DUI case is the officer who made the traffic stop. These cases virtually all break down to your word against the word of the police officer. Most murder cases do not occur in front of a police officer. This means that in defending a DUI case, the focus must be upon procedure and the application of the law to the facts of the case.
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