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Jared Austin, J.D. | Article

How I Approach a Michigan OWI/DUI Case Part One

2/25/2013
When a client comes into my office facing a DUI they have a myriad of concerns, especially if it is their first offense. Their fears center around if they are going to jail and are they going to lose their license. This is closely followed by concerns of losing their job, scholarship, or not getting accepted into college or graduate school. After carefully explaining the process, what they are charged with, and what penalties they are facing, I explain my approach on how I handle a DUI case.

First and foremost, I always look at the initial stop to see if there are any arguments to be made that the stop is invalid. After all, the police just can't pull you over for any reason. They have to have “reasonable suspicion” which is a lower standard than probable cause. Anything from speeding to infractions of the motor vehicle code will suffice. Sometimes the police initiate a stop based on an anonymous call that a possible drunk driver is on the road. These have to be very carefully scrutinized as the courts have held that the information given by the caller must be very specific and not too general. The officer's observations and length of the observation will play a critical role in determining the validity of the stop. It is very important to obtain the police reports, cruiser cam videos, and any 911 tapes to properly evaluate the stop.

This is not only the most logical place to start, but it also often proves to be the most effective because if you can get the judge to rule that the reason for the stop was insufficient, then all the subsequent evidence following the stop and arrest is invalid as “fruit of the poisonous tree” and thus, your case will be dismissed for lack of evidence. Don't let the police trample on the Fourth Amendment-- make sure they have a legally articulate reason for pulling your car over.

The next phase is to look at what happens after stop. This involves your initial encounter with the police before beginning their drunk driving investigation. Usually it starts with the police asking you to step out of the car and perform one or several field sobriety tests, concluding with the preliminary breath test and then the arrest. This is often the bulk of my investigation as there are a lot of issues at play here. First of all, the police just can't ask you to perform field sobriety tests just because they feel like it or it's 2:30 on a Saturday morning (although that may very well be the real reason). The police will have to point to facts that give them suspicion that the driver is drunk or impaired by some substance. This can include a lot of factors including: a strong odor of intoxicants, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, disorientation, nervousness or fumbling around, responding slowly to questions or requests, admitting to drinking... it's a long list. I carefully examine the police report and the video to not only see if they match up, but if what they are claiming gives them adequate reason to begin field sobriety tests.

Once the field sobriety tests begin, I carefully review the video to see if they are done properly. If they are not administered properly by the officer, that can give good grounds to challenge the arrest if you can successfully eliminate the evidence that gave rise to the arrest. You would be surprised at how many times the tests are done wrong. Only someone who is trained in what to look for will be able to scrutinize the tests to check for any issues or deficiencies. Any inadequacy in either the stop or field sobriety testing can provide ammunition to either get the charge dismissed or to get a better plea offer than the standard.

The preliminary breath test is usually given at the roadside and is often the clincher in the officer deciding to make the arrest. This too must be carefully evaluated. Not only does the officer administering the PBT have to posses the proper training and certification, but there must be a 15-minute observation period prior to administering the test to make sure the subject has not regurgitated or placed anything in their mouth during that time period as it could effect the validity of the reading. It is also important to obtain the maintenance records and calibration logs for the PBT to make sure that it was properly calibrated and maintained. If not, that could possibly get the PBT results suppressed.

Next comes the chemical testing. Although the officer has a choice of breath, blood, or urine, they usually opt for the breath test by the DataMaster machine at the police station. Again, there must be a 15-minute observation period as well as the machine being maintained and calibrated and operated by someone trained and certified. Sometimes the officer chooses blood as the choice for the chemical test. Usually they only do that when they suspect the driver of having drugs in their system (the breath machine only measures breath alcohol) or the DataMaster is unavailable, not calibrated, or no one that is certified is available to operate it. Blood draws have their own unique criteria. Again, it is important that it must done by someone who is trained and qualified to do blood draws and that it was done in the prescribed manner.

It is also important to carefully check that the chemical test rights were given to the suspect before administering the chemical test. Usually there is a form that is checked off and signed that accompanies the police report. If these were not given or were inadequately given, there may be grounds to suppress the chemical test results. When that happens, the case is often dismissed or at least severely reduced. That is why it is critical to closely evaluate the entire police report and other information that goes along with it.

I always make sure to get all the material I need from the police department via a FOIA request. This is how you can tell a good, experienced DUI attorney from a lazy novice. The inexperienced DUI attorney will get the police report and maybe the cruiser cam video and that's it. In order to properly evaluate the case much more is needed. Besides the police reports and cruiser cam videos, it's also important to obtain the breath room video, calibration logs and maintenance records for the roadside PBT and DataMaster, certifications of the PBT and DataMaster operator, complaint reports and discipline records of the police officers involved with the arrest, as well as all the booking information including mugshot and fingerprints.

This is how a DUI attorney earns his fee and is worth every penny. If you're shopping around and someone says they will represent you on a DUI for $500, run for the hills from that guy because he can't possibly do an adequate job and put in all the time necessary to represent you. He will get the police report and maybe the videos and plea you out at the first court appearance. That is not the guy you want. The only thing worse than representing yourself is being represented by a bad attorney. A good DUI attorney will more than pay for himself. The stakes are too high and the procedure much too complicated to do it alone.

After I have decided on whether there are grounds to challenge the stop or suppress the evidence, or the judge has ruled against me on such matters, my focus now shifts to a different phase...