Being pulled over for a DUI is a stressful experience. It’s a moment when both your freedom and future could hang in the balance. However, it’s important to know that police officers must adhere to specific protocols and procedures during a DUI traffic stop. Any deviation from these standards can impact the validity of the arrest and, ultimately, the outcome of your case. In this blog, we delve into the common mistakes police often make during DUI arrests and how these can influence the charges against you.
Lack of Reasonable Suspicion
In any DUI traffic stop, police officers must first have “reasonable suspicion” to initiate the process. This legal term means that there must be observable signs or behaviors, like erratic driving or excessive speed, that suggest you either committed a traffic offense, criminal offense, or are about to commit one. Reasonable suspicion requires specific and articulable facts that support more than a mere hunch of criminal conduct.
In the context of Tennessee law, reasonable suspicion could arise from various behaviors such as swerving across lanes, unpredictable braking, or executing illegal turns. Conversely, minor traffic infractions like having a faulty taillight or failing to use a turn signal typically don’t provide adequate grounds for suspecting DUI, but it does provide reasonable suspicion for the officer to begin a traffic investigation. However, an issue exists where the officer immediately assumes or investigates for DUI without any reason other than potentially location and time of night for assuming DUI. Once the officer pulls you over and sees indicators of DUI such as slurred speech, or odor of alcohol however, the officer can then turn the traffic investigation into a DUI investigation. Understanding this distinction is important because misuse of reasonable suspicion criteria can compromise your DUI case.
An experienced DUI attorney can evaluate the specifics of your stop to ascertain if reasonable suspicion was legitimately present. A lack of this key element could lead to filing motions to suppress evidence, which might result in dropped or reduced charges.
Improper Field Sobriety Testing
Field sobriety tests are frequently used as pivotal evidence in DUI arrests, but their accuracy depends on specific conditions during administration. For the results to be considered valid, factors like road surface, weather conditions, and even the type of shoes you’re wearing must be taken into account. When tests are improperly conducted, the reliability of the evidence could be compromised, affecting the strength of the case against you. Unfortunately, it does not cause the tests to be inadmissible or your DUI case to be dismissed automatically, but the totality of the circumstances and issues in the officer’s investigation could cause the State’s job of proving you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt quite difficult and therefore result in a favorable plea agreement or suppression of certain evidence at a hearing.
Certain variables can also impact the validity of these tests. Environmental factors like rain or uneven ground can affect the reliability of tests such as the Walk-and-Turn or the One-Leg Stand. Moreover, individual factors like age and weight can influence balance and coordination, potentially leading to inaccurate test results. If you’re facing DUI charges, a DUI attorney can review the circumstances under which your tests were administered. Identifying any errors or discrepancies may offer a strong basis for challenging the evidence in your case.
Failing to Inform of Implied Consent Laws
In Tennessee, the law establishes that when you receive a driver’s license and drive on public roadways, you’re essentially giving “implied consent” to undergo chemical tests (such as a breathalyzer or blood tests) if you’re suspected of DUI. What many drivers are unaware of, however, is that police officers have a legal obligation to inform you of this implied consent before administering any chemical tests. Neglecting this procedural step could result in the evidence being ruled inadmissible, potentially weakening the prosecution’s case, regardless of how high your BAC is on the blood or breath test.
If you believe that you were not properly informed about implied consent during your arrest, consult an experienced DUI attorney immediately. Legal experts in this field can evaluate the circumstances of your case and may be able to challenge the admissibility of test results, potentially leading to a reduction or even dismissal of your charges.
Unauthorized Search of Vehicle
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures, including arbitrary vehicle searches during a DUI arrest. In Tennessee, police officers need either a search warrant or “probable cause” to search your vehicle. Probable cause means the officer must have strong evidence or reasons to believe that you are involved in criminal activity or hiding something illegal in your vehicle. Under the plain view or plain smell doctrine, an officer can search the vehicle without a warrant from visible contraband like drugs or open alcohol containers. However, the smell of alcohol alone usually does not warrant a comprehensive vehicle search because it does not necessarily mean alcohol is in the vehicle unless you admit to it or the officer observes it in the officer’s plain sight.
Some law enforcement agencies employ techniques like using K-9 units for sniffing out drugs or other illegal substances. However, even these measures must be carefully handled and justified. If a K-9 unit is deployed without probable cause or if the dog’s “alert” is later found to be faulty, any evidence discovered during the search may become inadmissible in court. It’s important to know that an unlawful search not only violates your rights but can also substantially weaken the prosecution’s case against you.
Officers also routinely use an inventory search to search a vehicle without a search warrant. In sum, prior to an officer towing your vehicle upon your arrest for DUI, the officer will search your vehicle to inventory or make a list of everything inside of the vehicle. However, before the officer can get around the search warrant requirement through an inventory search, the officer must first provide you with the opportunity to make your own arrangements for the vehicle. The officer’s failure to do so may make all the evidence obtained during the search suppressed if successfully argued by your DUI and criminal defense attorney.
Coercion and Intimidation Tactics
During a DUI arrest, it’s important to be aware that any form of coercion or intimidation from law enforcement is both unprofessional and potentially detrimental to the validity of the case against you. Forms of coercion may include threats of immediate arrest for declining a field sobriety test or pressuring you into actions you have the right to refuse.
For instance, in Tennessee, you have the right to politely decline to answer questions that may incriminate you. Being pressured to answer could constitute coercion. In some cases, individuals have been wrongfully led to believe that refusing to answer questions or take field sobriety tests will automatically result in harsher penalties. While there can be repercussions for refusal, it’s critical to weigh these consequences against self-incrimination, especially in situations where you feel your rights are being undermined.
Any form of coercion or intimidation can be grounds for contesting the legality of the arrest or the admissibility of collected evidence. For example, voluntary consent or implied consent for a blood or breath sample may be deemed inadmissible due to coercion. It’s important to recall specific instances of undue pressure, threats, or other intimidation tactics, as these details can become pivotal when your attorney argues for the suppression of evidence or the dismissal of charges. If you cannot recall the specific language used by the officer do not panic because your lawyer will get the body camera to play the interaction back for a prosecutor and/or judge to argue for the suppression of any such evidence.
What to Do If You’ve Been Arrested for a DUI in Tennessee
Mistakes made by police during a DUI arrest are not uncommon and can have a significant impact on your case. Knowing what these mistakes are and having an experienced DUI attorney to represent you can make all the difference. If you believe your rights were violated or that mistakes were made during your arrest, contact Barnes & Fersten for a free review of your case. Your future deserves a diligent defense.
Attorney At Law, Managing Partner
Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUI, criminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.