Getting pulled over for a DUI can be a frightening and distressing situation. Knowing ahead of time how to manage the interaction calmly can give you some tools to better address what has the potential to be a stressful event. Driving while under the influence is a serious offense, and if you are ever found in this situation any misstep you make can have lasting consequences.
In the United States, approximately 1 million drivers are arrested every year for impaired driving, and that’s only a tiny fraction of the approximately 111 million who have self-reported driving under the influence, according to the CDC.
Obviously, law enforcement agents have a vested interest in identifying and stopping impaired driving, but the details of how it’s done get complicated. It’s not illegal to drink and drive, but it is illegal to drink and drive when that drinking has caused impairment to your ability to handle the road responsibly and ably. In other words, it is illegal to drive drunk, but one drink doesn’t automatically mean you will get a DUI.
Essentially, when you are pulled over for a DUI, the officer is looking for evidence of your impairment, and it’s important to consider your rights at this moment. If you find yourself in this situation, here are the best steps you can take.
Step 1: When Pulled Over for a DUI, Pull Over Calmly and Safely
Seeing the flashing lights behind you — especially if you have had a drink before getting behind the wheel — can be panic-inducing, but it is important to stay calm. Do not attempt to evade the police officer or drive erratically. In order to make a stop for a suspected DUI, the officer has already witnessed some kind of behavior that has provided probable cause for the stop. At this point, the interaction is almost certainly being recorded, and that means that the manner in which you drive after being signaled to pull over will become evidence in the case.
Find a safe place to pull over, use your signal to indicate you are complying, and safely come to a complete stop.
Step 2: When Approached by the Officer, Stay Calm and Polite
Remember, every movement you make and word you say is being tracked, and usually recorded, for evidence of your impairment. If you are acting in a manner that the officer deems suspicious or combative, it can be used against you. Instead, stay calm. Place your car in park, put your hands on the wheel, and wait for the officer to approach the vehicle. Do not get out of the vehicle unless and until you are requested to do so by the officer. Do not turn around to watch the officer approach or start getting documents out of your glove box, pockets, or purse. Remain still and calm. It may help to take some deep breaths.
Once the officer has approached the car, be polite. Do not overdo your helpfulness as it can come across as sarcastic, but address the officer as “sir” or “ma’am” and follow any direct commands to get out of the vehicle, hand over documents, or roll the window down further.
Step 3: When Answering Questions, Be Honest but Limited
You are required to comply with the officer’s demands — otherwise, you risk being charged with resisting arrest — but you are not required to provide self-incriminating information. If the officer asks you how much you’ve had to drink or if you’ve had anything to drink, the best thing to do is avoid answering (unless the honest answer is that you have had nothing to drink). Remember, it is not illegal to drink a small amount of alcohol and then drive. As long as you are not impaired or above the legal BAC level, you are not committing a crime. However, providing details that you have been drinking can make the case against you stronger.
If you have only had one or two drinks and you feel comfortable sharing that information, be sure to give the full context. For example, you could say, “I had two beers with dinner at a restaurant. I had the first one over two hours ago and finished the last one about 45 minutes ago.” This provides the officer with context that indicates you are likely not legally impaired. Remember, do not lie.
If it is likely that you are driving above the legal BAC level, the best thing to say is “I have been advised not to answer any questions.” There is a very real chance that you will be arrested and may lose your license, but those are consequences you face regardless of the outcome at this point.
Step 4: When Testing is Requested, Refuse
You may be requested to perform a field sobriety test (such as walking a straight line or standing on one foot). You should refuse this test. At this point, it is very likely that you will be arrested, but the evidence gathered from the field sobriety test will almost certainly make your case worse. The tests are often complicated and require dexterity and balance that many people cannot adequately perform even if they are sober.
You may also be requested to take a blood test or an on-site breathalyzer test. “On-site” meaning you will be taken to a police station to give a breath test. Hand-held tests that police have in their cars are NOT breathalyzer tests. Refusing a breathalyzer is not advised due to Colorado’s implied consent law. Here is some more information about what happens if you do choose to refuse a breathalyzer.
If you are arrested and taken to the police station, you may be required to take a blood or breath test at that time. If you have a choice between the two, take the breath test. The results are less conclusive, which may be helpful for your impending legal case.
Step 5: When You are Released, Document the Details
If getting pulled over for a DUI ends with an arrest, you should start documenting all the details you can remember as soon as you are released. Document what you did that evening and at what time. Write down what you drank and when you stopped drinking. Write down all the information you can remember about the DUI stop itself. This information can be very valuable to your defense.
At this point, you should also consult an attorney. A DUI charge has the potential to be very disruptive to your life, and getting the advice of an experienced attorney will provide you with a clear sense of your next steps.