What evidence is needed to arrest someone suspected of drunk driving?

UPDATED: Jul 17, 2023Fact Checked

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Jeffrey Johnson

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 17, 2023

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UPDATED: Jul 17, 2023Fact Checked

Despite all of the TV shows in which the police always say “you are under arrest,” for purposes of a defendant’s rights under U.S. laws, an arrest may occur long before those words are uttered. The courts have concluded that an arrest occurs when a reasonable person would conclude that his or her freedom has been significantly limited and that the suspect reasonably believes he is not free to leave.

Generally speaking, there are four types of evidence that a police officer will consider and gather in a drunk driving investigation: gross observations of behavior in general; specific observations of what are known as “field sobriety tests” (FST); information obtained from questioning the suspect; and chemical test results of the motorist’s blood, breath or urine.

A police officer may arrest a motorist for drunk driving if the cumulative effect of the evidence convinces the officer that he has “probable cause” or “reasonable cause” to make an arrest. This is a far lower standard than the one the state must prove at trial where the case must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Although this is a high standard, it is met every day in courts all over the country.

Case Studies: Evidence for Arrest in Drunk Driving Cases

Case Study 1: Observations of Behavior

During a routine patrol, Officer Smith notices a vehicle swerving erratically and crossing the centerline multiple times. The officer pulls over the driver, observes slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, and the smell of alcohol on the driver’s breath. Based on these gross observations of behavior, Officer Smith determines there is reasonable cause to arrest the driver on suspicion of drunk driving.

Case Study 2: Field Sobriety Tests

Officer Johnson responds to a report of a possible drunk driver. Upon arrival, he observes a vehicle parked on the side of the road with the driver inside. Officer Johnson administers standardized field sobriety tests, during which the driver exhibits poor balance and coordination. These specific observations from the field sobriety tests, combined with the odor of alcohol on the driver’s breath, provide Officer Johnson with probable cause to arrest the driver for drunk driving.

Case Study 3: Questioning and Chemical Test Results

Officer Martinez conducts a traffic stop after observing a driver running a red light. During questioning, the driver admits to consuming multiple alcoholic beverages. Officer Martinez administers a breathalyzer test, which indicates a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit. Based on the driver’s admission, along with the results of the chemical test, Officer Martinez determines there is reasonable cause to arrest the driver for driving under the influence.

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Jeffrey Johnson

Insurance Lawyer

Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

Insurance Lawyer

Mary Martin

Published Legal Expert

Mary Martin has been a legal writer and editor for over 20 years, responsible for ensuring that content is straightforward, correct, and helpful for the consumer. In addition, she worked on writing monthly newsletter columns for media, lawyers, and consumers. Ms. Martin also has experience with internal staff and HR operations. Mary was employed for almost 30 years by the nationwide legal publi...

Published Legal Expert

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

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