Articles Tagged with traffic stops

The District of Columbia is unique for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that there are dozens of police departments whose officers regularly patrol the city. Between the Metropolitan Police Department, the United States Secret Service, the Metro Transit Police, the United States Park Police, the Capitol Police, the myriad university police forces and more, D.C. residents can practically be pulled over or arrested anywhere by any force at any time. That being said, it is always helpful to have an understanding of the different federal and local police forces which have jurisdiction in Washington, D.C. and to know their jurisdictions. Here is an overview of some of the most prevalent police forces in D.C. who can pull you over and potential arrest you for a DC DUI or DWI:

1. District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)

The Metropolitan Police, or MPD, is the local police force for the District of Columbia, and its jurisdiction covers the entirety of the District. MPD operates like any other city police department and serves the city as its local police force.  MPD is probably the most common agency to make arrests for DUI’s in DC and many of the MPD officers are certified to administer the standardized field sobriety tests and operate breathalyzer machines.

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black police cuffsThe District of Columbia Superior Court is unlike many jurisdictions in that it does not have a bail bond system. In fact, there is not a single bail bonds person or business in the entire District. The City Council outlawed bail bonds years ago. So, the question is how is bond determined in a DC criminal case. DC Superior Court has a condition based system that starts with the general principle that most people should be released on their personal promise to appear in court.

That means in most misdemeanor cases, including DUIs, the person arrested will be released and required to sign notice to return for their next court date and appear with their attorney. The notice informs the person that if they fail to appear at the next court date, they could be charged with a separate crime (called a Bail Reform Act violation) that carries a maximum penalty of 180 days and/or a $1,000.00 fine. Often times, however, the judge will also impose court ordered conditions as part of the person’s release. Sometimes these conditions make sense. For example, when a repeat drug offender gets ordered to participate in a drug treatment program. However, many times the conditions imposed can be invasive, burdensome, and even paternalistic.

As previously discussed, the Pretrial Services Agency supervises most of the individuals charged with a crime and released on their personal promise to appear. Pretrial is a giant government bureaucracy that is understaffed and overworked. However, it appears that a recent trend has been a push to get more individuals charged with DUI’s and DWI’s in DC under Pretrial Supervision. At Scrofano Law PC, we recommend anyone charged with a DC DUI, including a first-offender enroll in a private alcohol program in an effort to avoid the requirement to report to and be supervised by Pretrial Services Agency.

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officer-on-duty-542938-mThis blog is the first part of a three part series discussing the standardized field sobriety tests (or “SFST’s”) used to investigate a DC DUI or DWI stop.  If a DC police officer pulls someone over and suspects that the driver has been drinking, the officer will usually ask the person to step outside the vehicle and perform the SFST’s.  The SFST’s are made up of three tests.  Officers who administer the test have usually been certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (or “NHTSA”) to perform such tests.  Their certification typically consists of a 40 hour training course and a test at the end of the course, which requires them to administer the SFST’s exactly consistent with NHTSA standards.

The three tests consist of the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test (or “HGN”), the walk and turn, and the one leg stand.  The walk and turn and one leg stand in the context of a DC DUI stop will be discussed in the next two posts.  With each test during the DC DUI investigation, the officer looks for specific cues of impairment to determine whether the person passes or fails to test.  Ultimately, if the officer perceives enough “cues” of impairment, he or she will make a DUI arrest.

The HGN is the test where the officers ask you to follow a pen or other stimulus with your eyes.  Many people mistakenly think the officer is just checking to determine whether you move your head while following the pen.  In reality, the officer is looking for specific types of nystagmus in each eye.  Nystagmus is an involuntary jerking of the eyes that is extremely subtle.

The first thing the officer looks for is whether the eyes show a lack of smooth pursuit, which is basically where the eyes move from side to side in a choppy manner (like a broken windshield).  The second cue is distinct and sustained nystagmus at maximum deviation.  The officer here will leave the stimulus at for about four seconds on each side to see if the eyes jerk in a “distinct and sustained” manner.  Finally, the officer checks for “onset of nystagmus prior to 45 degrees.”  This final cue is where the officer takes shorter passes on each side to a 45 degree angle to see if nystagmus (or the involuntary jerking of the eye) occurs.  The officer looks for these three cues in each eye for a total of six cues.

A typical DUI arrest will occur when the officer observes either four out of six or six out of six cues on the HGN (although I have had a case where the officer still made an arrest after only supposedly observing two of six).  Many problems can occur in the officer’s observation and interpretation of the HGN test.  For example, the lighting on the side of the road late at night (frequently where the test occurs) may not be sufficient to see these very subtle eye movements.  In addition, if the officer does not perform the tests exactly according to NHTSA’s standards, the results from the test are compromised.  Moreover, you cannot see what your eyes are doing during the test and typically no independent source confirms the officer’s observations.  There are also many things other than alcohol intoxication that cause nystagmus, including, among other things, caffeine, nicotine, and certain health issues.

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