Drunk Driving FAQ
Answers to your questions on legal limits, chemical tests and hiring
a lawyer in the event you're charged with driving under the influence.
How drunk or high does someone have to be before he can be convicted
of driving under the influence?
In most states, it's illegal to drive a car while "impaired" by the
effects of alcohol or drugs (including prescription drugs). This means
that there must be enough alcohol or drugs in the driver's body to prevent
him from thinking clearly or driving safely. Many people reach this level
well before they'd be considered "drunk" or "stoned."
How can the police find out whether a driver is under the influence?
Police typically use three methods of determining whether a driver
has had too much to be driving:
Observation. A police officer will pull you over if he notices that
you are driving erratically -- swerving, speeding, failing to stop or even
driving too slowly. Of course, you may have a good explanation for your
driving (tiredness, for example), but an officer is unlikely to buy your
story if he smells alcohol on your breath or notices slurred words or unsteady
Sobriety tests. If an officer suspects that you are under the influence,
he will probably ask you to get out of the car and perform a series of
balance and speech tests, such as standing on one leg, walking a straight
line heel-to-toe or reciting a line of letters or numbers. The officer
will look closely at your eyes, checking for pupil enlargement or constriction,
which can be evidence of intoxication. If you fail these tests, the officer
may arrest you or ask you to take a chemical test.
Do I have to take a blood, breath or urine test if asked to do so by
Blood-alcohol level. The amount of alcohol in your body is understood
by measuring the amount of alcohol in your blood. This measurement can
be taken directly, by drawing a sample of your blood, or it can be calculated
by applying a mathematical formula to the amount of alcohol in your breath
or urine. Some states give you a choice of whether to take a breath, blood
or urine test -- others do not. If you test at or above the level of intoxication
for your state (.08 to .10 % blood-alcohol concentration, depending on
the state), you are presumed to be driving under the influence unless you
can convince a judge or jury that your judgment was not impaired and you
were not driving dangerously. Defense attorneys often question the validity
of the conversion formula when driver's alcohol levels are based on breath
or urine tests.
No, but it may be in your best interests to take the test. Many states
will automatically suspend your license for a year if you refuse to take
a chemical test. And if your drunk driving case goes to trial, the prosecutor
can tell the jury that you wouldn't take the test, which may lead the jury
members to conclude that you refused because you were, in fact, drunk or
If I'm stopping for driving under the influence, am I entitled to
talk to an attorney before I decide which chemical test to take?
The answer depends on where you live. In California, for example, you
don't have the right to speak with an attorney first. But many other states,
including Arizona and Kansas, allow you to talk to your lawyer before you
take a chemical test.
If I'm taken in for driving under the influence, can a police officer
ask me questions on the way to the station without reading me my rights?
Yes, they can. In most situations, this type of questioning would be
a violation of your constitutional rights. But the U.S. Supreme Court has
held that drunk driving cases are different from most, and that officers
may ask you questions while you're riding in the back of the police car
-- without reading you your rights (including the right to remain silent,
the warning that anything you say may be used against you at trial and
the right to have a lawyer).
I've been charged with drunk driving. Should I get a lawyer?
Defending against a charge of drunk driving is a tricky business. Defenders
need to understand scientific and medical concepts, and must be able to
question tough witnesses, including scientists and police officers. If
you want to fight your drunk driving charge, you're well advised to hire
an attorney who specializes in these types of cases.