It's a familiar story — a driver gets behind the wheel after having some drinks and, before long, sees flashing red and blue lights in the rear-view mirror. But what comes next, after a DUI charge?
Between Dec. 22 and Jan. 2, Maryland State Police troopers from the Westminster Barrack apprehended 35 allegedly impaired drivers. Over the Christmas and New Year's weekends, Westminster officers arrested one person for allegedly driving under the influence, and Carroll County Sheriff's Office deputies issued five DUI citations between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2.
The 41 drivers who now have a DUI charge will have to appear in court. While they are deciding to plead guilty or not guilty, or whether to have a bench or jury trial, three other people are also working on those cases: the arresting officer, the prosecutor assigned to the case and the attorney tasked with defending the person.
After a person is arrested, they'll get some documents, along with a temporary license good for 45 days, defense attorney Ross Albers said. If a person hasn't obtained an attorney they'll go before a District Court commissioner, who tells the person the charges in a preliminary inquiry, he said.
"It's a very informal process. You don't have to have an attorney present," Albers said.
If the charged driver obtains an attorney, they can avoid the preliminary inquiry.
Then the process for defending the case begins, Albers said.
DUI court cases aren't too different from criminal cases, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Ken Grote said. People choose to go to trials or plea, just like they can do with criminal cases. And pleas look relatively similar. The person goes before a judge and pleas, and in many cases is sentenced in the same hearing. In both cases, a person can face jail time, restitution fees and probation time.
But there are some differences between the two kinds of cases, Grote said.
"There are quirks, I guess, with DUI," he said.
When a case goes to a trial, it is done chronologically, Grote said.
The first step to examine is the traffic stop, or whether the officer had a good reason to pull the person over. Once that's been determined, attorneys look to see whether there was enough evidence to get someone out of the car to perform field sobriety tests, Grote said.
If there's enough evidence, the attorneys assess whether there was enough to arrest the person and that the officer followed the legal steps in arresting the person, he said.
While on the road, officers can offer a preliminary breath test, which is not admissible in court. Once a person is arrested, however, they are given the opportunity to take a Breathalyzer test that is admissible in court.
In some cases, especially with cases that are tried in Circuit Court, a defense attorney will file a suppression motion to say there was not enough evidence for the arrest prior to a trial or hearing. In District Court, they often will file the motion of suppression during the trial, Grote said.
If the motion is accepted by the judge, an attorney may file a motion for acquittal, which would likely happen, Grote said.
Police take on DUI cases
A defense attorney can pick apart a case at any phase, said Deputy Douglas Kriete, with the Sheriff's Office. A defense attorney will be able to find minute details and put special emphasis on them in order to help their client, he said.
"There are hurdles to hit everywhere," Kriete said in a December interview.
For Kriete, the hardest phase is the field sobriety tests. Everything is done meticulously to show impairment, he said, but that's an area where the defense attorney can show a jury or a judge that the steps weren't done correctly.
Experience helps in writing better reports or testifying, said Deputy Tom Vanik, with the Sheriff's Office.
"Experience helps tremendously in DUI trials. The more trials you have the more you understand common mistakes that can be made by officers and you become more proficient the more you do it," Vanik said in an email.
Vanik said in an email that he works to bring strong cases to the State's Attorney's Office so it can prosecute them. A strong case means being detailed in his report and performing field sobriety tests correctly, he said in the email.
In his experience, a strong case usually results in a plea before getting to a jury trial, he said in the email.
DUI cases from a prosecution perspective
The first step in prosecuting a DUI charge is reviewing the police officer's report. If the prosecutor doesn't think the person was impaired or there isn't enough evidence, they won't go through with the case, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Ted Eyler said.
In looking at whether there is enough evidence, the prosecutor assigned to the case will look at the officer's observations, he said. Studying the officer's observations means looking to see whether the officer made a good traffic stop, then making sure the officer made the right call in asking someone to perform field sobriety tests, Grote said.
This could mean looking to see whether the officer said they smelled alcohol on the driver's breath, if the driver was fumbling for their license and other observations that would give an officer enough suspicion to request the field tests, Grote said.
"The most important, I guess, is them being able to do the field sobriety tests," he said.
An officer has to be able to justify performing the tests, he said, meaning an officer can't just order a person out of their car for any impairment.
Drivers are not required to perform field sobriety tests or do a Breathalyzer test, Grote said, and that can make the case harder to prosecute, he said. If there are no field sobriety tests or a blood alcohol content test, the prosecutor can only rely on the officer's observations in order to show a person was driving while impaired or driving under the influence, he said.
And in some cases, not participating in the field sobriety tests can be used against the driver, especially in a case where a person claims they didn't drink, Grote said
In these cases, and in DUI cases in general, having an experienced or well-trained officer can help. Their credibility is important in the case, Eyler said.
"I think the agencies here really emphasize DUI enforcement," he said.
Defending against a DUI charge
Defense attorneys Lenny Shapiro and Albers urge anyone who is pulled over to politely decline a field sobriety test and a breath test, they said.
"If there's a breath test, you're not going to win that case unless the test is kept out of evidence by varying motions," Shapiro said.
Like prosecutors, Shapiro is looking at the case and the report to see what areas he can defend. He said he knows early on whether a client has a defendable case.
When it comes to field sobriety tests, he tells people not to take them, pointing out that there are other reasons a person might not do well on a sobriety test beyond being intoxicated.
Albers said he views his job as making sure the police follow the rules during a DUI traffic stop, from initial observations to performing breath tests.
"Every one of those phases, there are certain rules that the police have to follow," he said.
At the same time, there are things a driver suspected of driving while intoxicated should do. They should politely decline to answer questions or perform the tests, he said.
"If you admit to drinking, you're getting arrested," Albers said.
For Albers, the initial stop and the officer's justification, as well as the probable cause to put someone under arrest, are some of the better areas to challenge.
"It's all about what evidence or information the police can elicit from you while you're in their custody before you are arrested," he said.
Breath tests also make the case difficult to defend, so Albers suggests that his potential clients decline it as well. As an attorney he is looking for any way he can try to end the case.
Each case is individualized, and that affects whether a person will seek a bench trial before a judge or a jury trial, Shapiro said.
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Technical issues are best settled before a judge, and in his experience most trials go before a judge, though he said he has defended trials involving a jury.
"DUIs are pretty subjective, as opposed to an armed robbery or an assault or a sexual assault," Shapiro said.
While Shapiro and Albers defend clients against DUI charges, it doesn't mean they condone driving under the influence, Albers said.
"I'm not an advocate for people to be drinking and driving, but I'm an advocate for the police, the State's Attorney's [Office] and the court to follow the rules," he said.