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Driving While Impaired (DWI) Defense
Chris has represented countless clients in Driving While Impaired (DWI) cases.
The State of North Carolina uses the term (DWI)-Driving While Impaired. In other states, you may hear terms like (DWI)-Driving While Intoxicated, (DUI)-Driving Under the Influence, or (OWI)-Operating While Intoxicated. In the UK it is known as drink-driving. In either case, it is the crime or offense of driving or operating a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or other drugs (including recreational drugs and those prescribed by physicians), to a level that renders the driver incapable of operating a motor vehicle safely.
To obtain a conviction, the officer, deputy, or trooper must conduct a thorough investigation and the District Attorney’s Office must present the relevant evidence in a clear and convincing manner that constitutes proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Given the complex nature of DWI cases, there are numerous potential defenses. While Chris will review every possible defense, he has included information on five of the most common DWI defenses.
Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion
Under the Constitution of the United States, law enforcement cannot stop or seize a vehicle without reasonable and articulable suspicion that the driver or a passenger has committed an infraction or criminal offense. In other words, the officer, deputy, or trooper must have a good reason to stop you. Reasonable and articulable suspicion most often takes the form of some minor traffic violation, such as speeding or rolling through a stop sign. They can stop you for these infractions and if they suspect that you have consumed alcohol, they can begin a DWI investigation.
Chris frequently represents people on DWI cases where it is not clear whether his client committed a traffic violation. For example, officers will stop people for weaving back and forth, either within their own lane or out of their lane. These stops are often unconstitutional, and if the judge agrees, the District Attorney’s Office will dismiss the case.
Probable Cause to Arrest
The Constitution of the United States prevents law enforcement from making an arrest in a DWI case without probable cause. While the Constitution requires probable cause of each element of the offense, Chris most frequently challenges whether the State has presented probable cause of impairment. Probable cause to arrest is the most common defense in a DWI case because it is not easy to demonstrate that a person is impaired without an experienced officer conducting a thorough investigation.
Judges, attorneys, and law enforcement focus on three phases when evaluating whether there is probable cause to arrest. The first phase is the vehicle in motion phase. During this phase, we consider what facts relating to the Defendant’s driving suggest that he or she is impaired. For example, we consider evidence such as weaving, stopping or starting suddenly, failing to respond to the officer’s emergency lights, pulling over in an appropriate location, and hitting the curb or another object. Facts such as speeding ten to twenty miles over the speed limit or rolling through a stop sign occur frequently and do not provide significant evidence of impairment.
We call the second phase the personal contact phase. This portion of the officer’s investigation begins when he or she approaches the vehicle. During this phase, we consider facts such as odor of alcohol, slurred speech, red and glassy eyes, trouble producing license and registration, and difficulty exiting the vehicle.
The third phase consists of field sobriety tests. Although there are a variety of different tests that officers utilize to determine whether a person is impaired, the three standardized tests are Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), Walk and Turn, and One Leg Stand. When administering HGN, the officer will look at a person’s eyes while moving a stimulus back and forth. The stimulus is usually either the officer’s finger or a pen. The suspect will follow the stimulus with his or her eyes while the officer looks for an involuntary jerking of the eye known as nystagmus. For the Walk and Turn Test, the officer will ask the driver to take nine heel-to-toe steps on a line, turn, and take another nine steps. Lastly, during the One Leg Stand, the officer will instruct the suspect to stand on one leg and count. These standardized field sobriety tests are the most important factor in determining whether the officer, trooper, or deputy had probable cause to arrest. Effective cross-examination on these tests often makes the difference between a conviction and a dismissal.
While issues like reasonable suspicion to stop and probable cause to arrest involve constitutional violations and take place at pretrial hearings, issues like driving come before the court during trial. The issue is whether the State has proven that the Defendant was driving beyond a reasonable doubt. In most of Chris’s cases, the State will have no problem proving driving because the officer will stop the vehicle while it is in motion and will approach while the Defendant is still behind the wheel.
In many cases, however, the officer, deputy, or trooper will not arrive on the scene until after the vehicle has stopped moving. This issue arises most frequently in cases involving an accident, especially a one car accident. When the officer shows up and finds a vehicle in a ditch and three people standing outside of the car, the State frequently will not have a clear-cut case on driving. Even if one of the occupants admits to driving, an admission alone is generally not enough to find driving beyond a reasonable doubt. To corroborate the admission, the officer will look for evidence such as who, if anyone, has the keys, to whom the car is registered, and statements of bystanders.
Like driving, the State must prove the element of impairment beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial. Although the State often has a strong case on this issue because they submit a breath or blood alcohol concentration significantly above the legal limit, there are many cases where the State will struggle to prove impairment beyond a reasonable doubt.
Impairment defenses generally arise in three different ways. First, Chris’s client refuses to submit to a breath test and the officer does not attempt to obtain a blood test. In these cases, the State still can obtain a conviction by proving that defendant’s conduct and the surrounding circumstances establish that the defendant is appreciably impaired, but it requires a significant amount of convincing evidence that leaves little doubt that the Defendant was impaired. If the State does not have a blood test or a breath test, then Chris will have a strong defense, if his client was not so impaired that he or she, for example, can barely stand.
The second situation where Chris regularly pursues an impairment defense, involves cases where his client has a breath or blood alcohol concentration of .08 or .09. The appellate cases in North Carolina establish that a finding of .08 or higher is sufficient to establish impairment beyond a reasonable doubt, but that it does not require that the finder of fact (judge or jury) return a verdict of guilty. In other words, .08, and to a lesser extent .09, do not automatically mean impairment beyond a reasonable doubt. Especially in front of judges in District Court, the issue of impairment in .08 and .09 cases depends largely upon the results of field sobriety testing. Accordingly, it is crucial that the defending attorney effectively cross-examines the officer on these important issues.
People charged with criminal offenses have a constitutional right to prepare a defense for themselves. In a DWI case, the evidence of impairment is fleeting. In other words, no one cares how sober the defendant seemed the afternoon after the night in question. What is relevant is how the defendant acted shortly after driving. As a result, the State cannot simply charge defendants in DWI cases and place them in a holding cell until they sober up. During this crucial period of evidence gathering, the Defendant must have access to potential witnesses.
In the case of State v. Knoll, the North Carolina Supreme Court recognized this right of DWI suspects. In general, there are three potential issues that give rise to a defense based on Knoll and related cases. First, the magistrate violates the defendants rights by setting a bond that is too high, preventing the defendant from bonding out, gathering evidence, and accessing witnesses. Second, the magistrate incorrectly determines that the defendant is a danger to the safety and property of others and refuses to release the defendant. Third, a witness arrives at the jail to observe the defendant’s condition, but the jail staff denies the witness access to the defendant. If one of these issues potentially occurred in your case, Chris may advise you to pursue a motion based on State v. Knoll, which could result in suppression of certain evidence at trial or in the dismissal of your case.