The Crime of Drunk Driving

The definition of drunk driving is left up to each individual state. Each state decides the level at which a driver’s blood alcohol content is too high to safely operate a motor vehicle.

When is a Driver Drunk?

While it is the right of every state to define drunk driving and acceptable blood alcohol levels for that state, Congress has influenced many states to adopt the same standard. States that want to receive the maximum amount of federal highway funding must adopt a drunk driving standard that presumes any blood alcohol content above 0.08% to be considered too drunk to drive. Most states comply with this initiative.

Many states also have lower levels of permissible blood alcohol content for certain classes of drivers. For example, many states have limits as low as 0.04% for commercial drivers and even lower limits for drivers under the legal drinking age of 21.

If a driver is found to have a blood alcohol content level at or above the state threshold then the driver is presumptively guilty of drunk driving and can be arrested.

Stopping a Driver for Suspected Drunk Driving

In order to determine if a driver is drunk, according to the state’s legal definition of drunk driving, the police must gather evidence. This can be done in a number of ways.

First, the police may request that the driver stop the vehicle. The police can make that request randomly by setting up drunk driving checkpoints and stopping every predetermined number of cars (for example, every 8th car).

The police may also request that an individual driver pull over if they have a reasonable suspicion that the driver might be intoxicated. For example, they might see the driver driving erratically or they may have received a report from another motorist that a particular car is driving erratically. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has developed a list of things that might indicate that a driver is drunk. That list includes, turning with a wide radius, straddling the painted lines on the roadway, weaving, appearing to be drunk, striking or almost striking another vehicle, swerving, driving on the wrong side of the road and, braking erratically. These types of things may enter into an officer’s determination of whether or not he or she has reasonable suspicion to stop a driver for drunk driving.

Sometimes, the police will pull a driver over for another suspected traffic violation. For example, the officer might notice a driver speeding. If the officer notices evidence that might indicate that the driver is intoxicated when he approaches the vehicle then the officer could proceed as if the driver is suspected of drunk driving Such evidence might include the smell of alcohol on the driver’s breath or open alcohol containers in the car, among other things.

Gathering Evidence

Once the driver has been stopped then the police need to gather evidence to determine if the driver is drunk according to state law. The first step in this process is usually a visual examination of the driver. If the driver appears drunk then the officer may conduct field sobriety tests (such as reciting the alphabet, standing on one leg) and a breathalyzer test.

If based on the information collected, the officer believes that the driver is drunk then the officer will arrest the driver and take him to the police station for a chemical test to determine his or her blood alcohol content level. Then the case will proceed or the charges will be dropped according to the findings of the blood test.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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