Taking drunks off the roadway is not a waste of anyone's time. If you don't believe me or think you can't make a difference, here is an example close to home. My agency has lowered the traffic homicide rate in Osceola County, Fla., to the point that we lost some federal funding because they no longer consider us to have a big enough problem. Each one of our four Traffic Unit DUI guys alone gets more than 100 DUI arrests a year. Don't tell me you can't make a difference.
Demystifying DUI Stops
I've come up with some useful tips that might help demystify handling DUIs. They come from not only my experiences but from my agency's traffic unit as well. They are presented below in no particular order.
1. According to the "Officer's DUI Handbook" by Stephen, Kwasnoski, and Partride, which I highly recommend, there are three phases to a DUI: vehicle in motion, personal contact, and pre-arrest screening. With each phase there is one key question you have to ask yourself: Do I have enough to go on to the next phase? If the answer is yes, keep going!
Vehicle in motion: What did you see, what caught your attention, and why are you stopping this vehicle? How well did the vehicle stop when the driver was commanded to do so?
Personal contact: As you approached the vehicle, what did you see? As you talked to the driver, what did you hear, see, and smell? How did the driver respond to your questions?
Pre-arrest screening: How did the driver do while performing the field sobriety testing? What did he or she do wrong during those tests? Is the impairment caused by alcohol, drugs, or illness? Do you have enough probable cause for an arrest? If not, what other options do you have per your agency policy?
2. Ask questions. Ask, How much have you had to drink? Where are you coming from? Where are you heading? The more questions you ask, the more reasonable suspicion you build and tip over into probable cause. This becomes even more important when there is a pass-off from one officer to another; especially if you have your own DUI unit. The more the initial stopping officer can get before making the call to another more trained officer, the more it will help later on in court. "I thought he was drunk so I called Officer Smith," is never going to be enough. When you are talking DUIs you need to be talking in details.
3. Be observant. You need to look for signs of impairment through your entire stop. The obvious one is looking for empty cans or bottles of open alcohol. Is the driver fumbling around with her wallet when you ask her for her drivers' license and registration? Did he pass over his license several times before finally handing it over to you? One that is often overlooked is evidence of "the club hand" (bracelet or stamp sometimes used to mark club entrance). It's important because it may not be there the second time around when the person realizes it's a bad thing to still have on and he or she rips it off. How about checking if the engine is still hot? Is the key in the ignition and left in the "on" position? You need to be curious and have a sense of urgency about it. You need to find evidence of physical control.
4. Wheel witness. If the call is a traffic crash, try to hang on to the wheel witness if at all possible. If the person has to leave, try to get a written statement before. At a minimum, get a name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. You can't charge DUI if you can't prove the suspect was in control of the vehicle (and the vehicle was operable) at the time of the alleged offense.
5. Road less traveled. Sure any major roadway is potentially a target rich environment. But, most drunks know this and tend to drive more carefully. Get into the predator mindset and hunt down back roads and side roads as well. Many times, drunk drivers will feel more secure and comfortable driving a back road. This opens them up to better observation for their driving pattern. DUIs can be found anywhere; driving up and down major thoroughfares is just one way to look.
6. Trust your instincts. Something catches your eye but you are not sure if the driver is a DUI. Once you establish a legal reason to stop the car, look deeper. Upon contact, you may not have any other overt signs of impairment. Maybe they were sleepy or not paying attention and yet you feel something is still not right.
Again, ask questions: Why were you driving like that? Where are you now and what time is it? Where were you coming from and where are you going? Simply engaging in conversation might lead to other clues of impairment. Remember, someone's driving under the influence is not always related to alcohol. There may be other drugs involved as well.
Take it Seriously
No doubt DUIs are a pain to work. It seems like they never end. It takes a while to make your arrest and there seems to be a host of endless court related proceedings. And yet, until a drunk driver kills a member of our family, officers seldom fully commit to the importance of taking drunk drivers off the road. Become proactive before one of these idiots kills someone you know and love.
More importantly, if you're not proactive, then at least call someone over who is. But remember, your part in all of this is extremely important as the originating officer. You may be able to pawn off the rest of the call, but the end always depends on the beginning. To all you proactive "predators," good hunting.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 24 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.