What happens when you're pulled over for suspected DWI, and what are your rights?

Experienced attorney Charles Segal takes you through the traffic stop process.
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Minnesota, like every state, takes driving under the influence very seriously. However, the state has also mandated that law enforcement’s hunt for drunk drivers not impede the rights of its citizens.

As such, drunk driving checkpoints were made illegal and police officers have a series of strict rules to follow when apprehending those that they suspect to be driving under the influence.

However, while you won’t get caught in the web of drunk driving checkpoints, police will still pull you over for a variety of reasons. When it comes to being pulled over for drunk driving, police officers will need to have reasonable suspicion that you have committed an infraction rather than just pulling you over for no reason at all. If this is true, they may ask you to partake in field sobriety tests, the results of which will determine whether they arrest you or let you go.

When this happens, do you have the right to refuse them?

Taking Field Sobriety Tests

When it comes to field sobriety investigation, there are four different standardized tests that an officer will give. These tests include:

  • The One Leg Stand: The officer will ask you stand on one leg with perfect balance for 30 seconds.
  • The Walk and Turn: You will be asked to walk a straight line, heel-to-toe style, and turn in a specific manner and without swaying or falling over.
  • The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: The officer will ask you to follow their finger or other item like a pen, looking for involuntary jerking of the eye that is exaggerated with inebriation.
  • The Portable Breath Test: Your standard, though less reliable, portable breathalyzer test.

Some of these tests have been criticized in recent years as being designed to fail. This is often why officers will rely more on the portable breath test rather than other field sobriety tests.

Often even if you do well on another field test, the officer will still likely request a breath test before releasing you.

Can You Refuse Field Sobriety Tests?

There is much confusion on whether you can refuse field sobriety tests in Minnesota, but the answer is yes, you can. Field sobriety tests are often stacked against us because we have never done them before.

Just because you have bad balance doesn’t mean you are drunk, after all. This makes you more likely to fail, and typically you have little to gain from them. In most cases, even if you do well on one field sobriety test, they will still make you perform a portable breath test.

Furthermore, if you are over the limit, failing these tests only makes your DWI case that much harder to win.

One thing to keep in mind is that Minnesota is not a “blow-and-you-may-go” state. In other words, an officer cannot stop you and simply ask you to blow into a portable breathalyzer just to see where you are at.

There must be a basis for the officer to believe you are possibly under the influence of alcohol. Therefore, if you refuse to take the other three tests, there may not be a legal basis to give you the portable breathalyzer test.

However, this is an issue to litigate in court and not an issue for debate with the officer.

However, whether you take or refuse the field sobriety tests, it is still within an officer’s right to arrest you. Also keep in mind, whenever interacting with the police, the most important thing to do is be respectful.

If you choose to not take the tests, politely decline – do not engage in an argument with the officer.

And if the officer decides to arrest you, you are not going to convince them to change their mind so while being placed under arrest, cooperate.

An officer will usually put in the police report whether you were cooperative and this will have an impact on the prosecutor – prosecutors don’t like defendants giving their officers a hard time, and will make that clear in their recommendations to the court if you are found or plead guilty.

Your best argument to the officer’s decision to arrest you will come through your attorney in court and not by you on the street, so be polite!

What about the test at the station or hospital?

After you are arrested, you will be asked to submit to a blood, breath or urine test. Now this is another area where people often get confused.

Even if you took the portable breathalyzer test on the road, that was an investigatory test to give the officer a possible basis for your arrest, but is not admissible in court. Therefore, the officer will ask you to take another test after arrest – an evidentiary test, that is admissible in court.

While you can refuse a field sobriety test on the road, it is a crime to refuse a blood, urine, or breath test done at the police station or hospital. If you take a breath test and it turns out you were intoxicated, but below the legal limit, you may possibly be free to go. 

However even if your test result is under the 0.08 limit, the state can still move forward with DWI charges.

In sum, whether or not you do the field sobriety tests on the road, and whether or not you take the blood, breath or urine test at the station or hospital, and whether your test is over or under the limit, if you are arrested and charged with driving while impaired, retaining an experienced DWI attorney is paramount to ensuring your rights are protected and that you get the best possible outcome to this difficult situation.

Charles Segal has handled DWI and criminal law cases for almost 25 years as a county and city prosecutor, public defender, and private defense attorney. You can contact him at charles@segaldefense.com.

The information presented in this article is not considered legal advice. Please contact an attorney about your specific case.

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