The United States has seen a radical change in the way drunk-driving cases are handled by criminal and civil courts. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s a DUI charge could usually be resolved by paying a small fine. Offenders were often not even required to appear in court, and they could simply mail in a check to pay a fine and settle the case.
Public awareness of the issue changed in the 80’s and 90’s, and the penalties have been increasing to this day. Offenders face jail time, steep fines, license suspensions and are faced with having to hire a DUI lawyer to handle the case and lead them through the criminal court process. Alcohol-related fatal collisions were once viewed as unfortunate accidents but now the incidents rival manslaughter charges for the lengths of prison time that can result.
The liability of persons who serve alcohol also has increased. Restaurants and bars are frequent targets of attorneys who seek to hold persons responsible for traffic accidents that occur when patrons leave. Individual homeowners who serve alcohol to guests also end up as civil defendants in America’s courtrooms.
Once alcohol was the only drug that warranted the concern of the police who patrolled the nation’s highways. Now, the police receive special training to determine if drivers are under the influence of other drugs such as prescription pills, club drugs, or marijuana. The so-called marijuana dui cases have been particularly controversial. In the states of Washington and Colorado, marijuana dui charges are a response to recent ballot initiatives that have largely decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the drug.
An arrest for DUI usually starts with a law enforcement officer stopping a vehicle for probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a traffic offense. Frequent violations include speeding, failure to use turn signals, weaving across the lanes, or improper vehicle equipment. After a vehicle is stopped, an officer will approach the car and ask the driver for his or her driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance. It is during this initial contact that a police officer will look for the signs of impairment by alcohol or drugs. If an officer suspects alcohol intoxication, he will invite the driver to take a breath test. An officer may also invite the driver to perform coordination tests to help determine if the driver is impaired by alcohol or drugs. An arrest may follow.
At the police station or jail, an officer will ask the suspect to take an additional breath test. In the case of drug DUI, a blood test will be performed at a hospital. A suspect is advised of his or her right to an attorney, and may be allowed to make a phone call to a friend or family member. A court hearing follows within a day or two, and the suspect will later have a right to a trial by jury to determine if he or she is truly guilty of the offense.