Law enforcement officers have a unique role in our society. They are the first to respond to medical emergencies, car accidents, and fires, in addition to responding to calls to investigate crimes. In some instances, the call for help due to a medical emergency might turn a life-saving event into a criminal investigation. Given their elevated role in our society, we expect police officers to conduct themselves professionally at all times.
There is one role police officers play that is often overlooked, except by astute criminal defense attorneys who appreciate the vital part police play in orderly society as a first responder but have a more skeptical view of police officers when they morph into investigators from life-saver. Police officers are professional witnesses. They are paid to observe, respond, and then recall the information at a later date when they testify in court.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant the right to confront and cross-examine the witnesses who testify against him or her. Police officers cannot rely on their arrest narrative or a report of their investigation to charge and convict the accused. Instead, they must take the witness stand at a trial, under oath, and testify as to their observations.
The notion of a police officer as a professional witness is no more prevalent than during a DUI investigation. Police officers receive a substantial amount of training in investigating DUI cases during their formal education to become a law enforcement officer. Officers receive classroom instruction concerning the identification of intoxicated drivers, as well as the physical signs indicating that a person could be under the influence. The training officers receive gives them a mental checklist of evidence to look for when investigating a person while the officer suspects in under the influence. Interestingly, when you review several DUI arrests, you will see some striking similarities in their reports and the officers’ testimony.
Officers use their training to evaluate the situation as it unfolds before them and then draw conclusions about the person. For example, if a deputy sheriff observes a car on a lonely road weaving from side to side, or slowing and speeding up without any reason, the officer would have justifiable cause to stop the person from inquiring about the dangerous driving. Even at that point, the officer is going through the DUI mental checklist.
The officer approaches the car next and is carefully watching the entire time, not only for his or her safety, but for evidence as to why the driver was all over the road. Now, the officer speaks with the driver. The officer smells the scent of alcohol, sees the driver has bloodshot and watery eyes, and is having difficulty speaking. The officer asks the driver to take field sobriety tests, and the officer notes the driver’s performance. Any failing marks will allow the officer to form the opinion that the driver is intoxicated and must be arrested for DUI. At booking, the officer will offer the accused the breathalyzer test. Although the machine interprets the breath sample, the officer must know how to operate the machine and understand when the machine is functioning correctly.
All of the evidence accumulated by the officer during a DUI investigation will present the prosecutor with a case that appears to be wrapped neatly in a bow.
Police Officer Testimony in DUI Cases
Officers learn how to testify after they gain some experience on the job. A polished officer who recalls the report he or she wrote, gives the impression that he or she recalls the incident with clarity, is personable, appears unbiased, and appears trustworthy is a problematic witness for a DUI defendant to confront. The officer takes on the heir of an expert witness. Juries respect honest police officers and are quick to credit their testimony.
In some respects, they are an expert witness in DUI cases. Experts are witnesses who have specialized knowledge about a particular subject that the ordinary juror does not possess. Officers can testify about their opinion that the driver the officer encountered was intoxicated based on the facts the officer observed. Officers are trained to conclude that a person is too drunk to operate a motor vehicle safely based on how alcohol affects the brain, which is medical testimony. Police officers are first-responders, but they are neither doctors nor psychiatrists.
DUI cases are one of the only investigations police officers are allowed to testify to their opinion about what they saw and concluded. Drug interdiction investigators are permitted to testify about the significance of drug evidence in some cases. The difference between the two cases comes down to the DUI investigator personally observed the accused. The drug expert rarely participates in the investigation he or she is called in to testify about.
Confronting the Professional Witness
A police officer with any pride will stand by his or her report when confronted in court. Good police officers will stand behind the actions they took and will say they are just interpreting the data they receive to conclude the sobriety of the driver. The officer will claim that he or she was merely performing their job to the best of their ability without bias or prejudice.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) thoroughly researched issues associated with DUI arrests and arrived at some interesting conclusions. The NHTSA found that younger police officers are more likely to make a DUI arrest than more senior officers. Additionally, officers who drink alcohol are more lenient than those who do not. Additionally, officers assigned to specialized patrols make more DUI stops than the average patrol officer. The NHTSA also found that police officers do not fully understand the impact alcohol has on the body despite their extensive training. How the suspect confronts the officers can influence the outcome of the encounter. The suspect never has to answer a police officer’s questions, but they should always be polite.
Most patrol cars in Florida have dashboard cameras, and many officers wear body cameras. These devices record the officer’s interactions with the person under investigation for DUI. Video recordings made by dashboard cameras and body cameras provide unbiased evidence to confront the officer under cross-examination at trial. Thus, if an officer’s testimony contradicts the video, then the video can be played in court to impeach the officer.
Experience is Key to Successfully Defending Florida DUI Cases
Understanding the flaws in an officer’s investigation is meaningless if the defense attorney cannot convincingly convey those flaws to a jury or judge. At Musca Law, our Florida DUI defense attorneys have decades of experience confronting professional witnesses and understand how to convince a jury the officer’s testimony should not be believed. Call Musca Law today at (888) 484-5057 to learn how we can defend your Florida DUI charge.