The Definitive Guide to DUIs in Mississippi - Part 2
The Initial Encounter (pre-SFSTs): Vehicle in Motion and Personal Contact
When an officer is on patrol, he may have as part of his assignment to be on the lookout for drunk or otherwise impaired drivers. Normally, officers who are given this task have been specially trained in DUI enforcement through the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Training Academy (MLEOTA) in Pearl. If they were not trained at MLEOTA, they typically received DUI enforcement training somewhere. And almost always, the training any officer receives is based upon standardized DUI educational materials authored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is part of the United States Department of Transportation.
The standard DUI training from NHTSA covers everything from an officer's first view of a car in motion through arrest and reporting. The first part NHTSA covers is "vehicle in motion" observation.
Vehicle in Motion
When an officer sees a car moving down the roadway, he is taught to look for clues that its driver might be impaired. There are four categories of clues that officers are taught to look for to detect potential driver impairment, along with examples the officers are given:
Problems in maintaining proper lane position
Crossing lane lines
Straddling a lane line
Nearly running into another vehicle or object
Turning with a wide radius
Speed and braking problems
Stopping too short or too far
Braking in a "jerking" fashion
Unnecessary speeding up or slowing down
Driving 10mph or more under the speed limit
Not turning headlights on at night
Failing to use turn signal or using it incorrectly
Driving in the wrong lane (against traffic)
Stopping for no apparent reason
Following too closely
Improper lane change
Driving off of the road
Officers are taught that some of these clues are more indicative of DUI than others, but that the presence of any single one of them means there is a 35% chance the driver is impaired. For example, NHTSA says that weaving across lane lines means there is a 50% chance the driver is impaired, while swerving (an abrupt jerking of the car into another direction of travel to correct drifting) means there is a 70% likelihood of impairment. When any two clues are combined, the officers are taught that there is at worst a 50% chance that the driver is impaired.
Officers only need probable cause (generally defined as more likely than not, or more than 50% likely) to believe a driver is impaired to initiate a traffic stop. So if they see a vehicle swerve, or if they see a driver follow too closely and then change lanes without using a signal, they will feel confident that they can stop the driver under suspicion of DUI.
If the officer decides to stop the car, he or she then watches the way in which the driver stops the car for more clues of impairment. They are taught to watch for the following:
- Trying to flee
- No response to the blue lights or a slow response
- Abruptly weaving
- Sudden stop
- Hitting the curb while stopping
- Any new traffic violation
This first phase, Vehicle in Motion, is an important evidence gathering phase for the officer, who is building his DUI case from that very moment. If you wind up charged with DUI, you can expect to see some of the above referenced in the officer's report. The next phase is when the officer first interacts with the driver.
Officers are taught to "approach, observe, and interview" the driver while the driver is still behind the wheel. They know to look for any signs of impairment, and are taught to use their senses of sight, hearing, and smell to do so. Here is a breakdown of what they are taught to be aware of:
- What they see
- Bloodshot eyes
- Soiled clothes
- Fumbling fingers
- Alcohol containers
- Drugs and drug paraphernalia
- Bruises, bumps, and scratches
- Other unusual behavior
- What they hear
- Slurred speech
- Admission of drinking
- Inconsistent responses
- Unusual or nonsensical statements
- Abusive or foul language
- What they smell
- Odor of intoxicating beverage
- Heavy use of "cover up" odors like Febreze or other deodorizers
A collection of some of these (and believe it or not sometimes ALL of these) clues will wind up in the officer's report if he decides to charge a person with DUI. In fact, experienced DUI lawyers will tell you that the phrases "I smelled the odor of an intoxicating beverage" and "the subject had glassy, bloodshot eyes and slurred speech" appear so frequently near the beginning of DUI officer reports that they appear to be copied and pasted from report to report across Mississippi.
The officers are also taught to question the driver extensively and to use a technique called "divided attention" questioning. Divided attention questioning usually begins with the officer asking the driver to produce two things: their drivers license and their insurance card. This makes the driver remember two simple tasks, to retrieve both items and hand them to the officer. If the driver has difficulty remembering to give him both items, the officer is taught that this may mean they are impaired.
The officer is then to ask the driver questions while he is fishing for his license and insurance card. This is the core of the divided attention questioning technique: it makes the driver think about multiple things at the same time. The inability to do that is a pretty good indicator that the driver is impaired by alcohol or some other substance, at least according to the NHTSA. The officer will ask questions like "where are you coming from?" or "where are you headed?" while closely watching not just what the driver says (nonsensical answers) but also how the driver says it (slurred speech). The officer may also ask unusual questions, like "what is your middle name?" to further test the ability of the driver to answer.
At this point, the officer is taught he should be on the lookout for any potential medical issues that might mimic drug or alcohol impairment. They are taught they should ask the driver if they have any physical disabilities, are under the care of a doctor, are diabetic or epileptic, or are on any medications. If they don't ask these things that doesn't mean they can't go forward with the DUI investigation. It just may hurt them later at trial if a medical condition is actually a factor.
The officers may decide at that point that the driver isn't likely impaired and release them, or they may ask the driver to exit the vehicle for further testing. What happens after the decision is made to ask the driver to step out of the vehicle is the subject of Part 3 of the Definitive Guide to DUIs in Mississippi.