Some of you who read this column may find it strange that I, as a former police chief and a career law enforcement officer, would be writing about what to expect when you are stopped for DUI or suspected DUI. But if we want a just, compassionate and legal criminal justice system for all, you should know your rights and what police can and cannot do.
Police officers always have probable cause to stop somebody for DUI based on their driving habits. What happens in court is another story. If you are pulled over for DUI, the officer will ask questions about what you were doing before you started driving. Questions typically will include “Were you drinking before driving,” “How much have you had to drink,” and “Where are you going?” These questions are essential because the officer will determine your level of intoxication (in part) on the answers to these questions and the standard field sobriety tests given as part of the DUI stop.
If you told the officer that you were driving home and your home is directly east of the direction you are going but you are driving west, that could indicate that you have no idea where you are going.
Let’s start with what the police will ask you and what you must do. Officers will ask you to participate in the standard field sobriety testing. These are tests administered at the scene. You are not required by law to participate. Officers will ask you questions about your driving habits and how much you have had to drink. The law does not require you to answer these questions. They also will typically ask you to take a portable breath test, a PBT, or a breath test at the police station, commonly known as the breathalyzer.
At times, if you are involved in an automobile crash and are suspected of being intoxicated, officers will ask you to submit blood and urine while being treated at the emergency room. An exception to this is if you are involved in great bodily harm or a fatal crash, in which case police officers can compel you to give your blood and urine for DUI testing.
When we speak of DUI testing, it is not only about alcohol. Police usually and often do tests for alcohol and drugs. Police can test for cannabis, prescription drugs and illegal drugs. Individuals can be arrested for DUI-related offenses for driving on prescription drugs, usually mixed with alcohol.
If you refuse the field sobriety tests, you still will be arrested based on the officer’s observations. If you refuse to take a breath test at the police station, your driver’s license often will be suspended for up to 12 months. You are entitled to a hearing before the suspension goes into effect.
Most lawyers will request a summary suspension hearing in front of a judge in an effort to prevent your license from being suspended before the trial date. This is a frequent practice and sometimes is successful.
When pulled over for DUI, you have the right to refuse a police officer to search your vehicle in most cases. If an officer asks to search your vehicle, you can permit them to do so, but any evidence the officer gathers could be used against you at your court proceedings. In all situations, you should stay calm, be polite and treat the officers respectfully during your interaction.
When individuals are stopped for DUI and are intoxicated, they can be aggressive, combative and argumentative. This is never a good thing. It is typical for officers to use probable cause for DUI, as a traffic offense would be the reason for the stop. This could include weaving from lane to lane, driving without headlights, speeding, driving well under the posted speed limit and other traffic violations. Officers need probable cause to make the stop.
It also is expected that motorists will call in possible DUIs. Under Illinois law, the officer must spot the car and then make a judgment based on his observations to make the traffic stop. The officer cannot rely solely on the information provided by the caller to the 911 center reporting a DUI driver.
In my career in law enforcement, I made hundreds, if not thousands, of DUI arrests. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, both the Illinois chapter and the national chapter, recently reported that one out of every 10 drivers passing you on a Friday and Saturday night between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. is legally intoxicated. In all states, .08 is legally intoxicated.
With ride share companies such as Uber and Lyft, there is no excuse for anyone to go out and party and not get safe transportation home. When I was police chief in Riverside, we partnered with Lyft on a national program to reduce drunken driving. We were one of the first agencies in the nation to use coupons for transportation home after a night of partying or drinking. Riverside was featured in the International Association of Chiefs of Police magazine detailing how the program worked with our businesses in town that served alcohol.
As a society, we must stop thinking DUIs are only traffic offenses. Drunken driving is a serious crime and, at times, a severe violent crime if the DUI involves an auto crash. Use a designated driver or ride share. It may save your life and others.
• Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.