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When it comes to making DUI stops, it is well-established in New York and other states that police officers cannot arbitrarily stop vehicles. But how do police make such a determination? Is there any uniform standard that they adhere to, and if so what is that standard?

Police have guidelines to help them decide whether to pull over a vehicle the driver of which they suspect is intoxicated. One such set of guidelines is issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and is entitled "DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing."

The NHTSA standards visualize a police DUI stop as a three-phase process that begins with observing the vehicle in motion, then progresses through making personal contact with the driver and finally to pre-arrest screening. This post will address the first of these three phases, "vehicle in motion."

Driving a car involves a process known as "divided attention." A sober driver must be able to handle multiple tasks simultaneously, or near-simultaneously, such as steering, signaling, controlling the accelerator and brakes, and observing other cars and traffic signals.

Impaired drivers have trouble dividing their attention; they tend to concentrate on only a few critical tasks at any given time, letting the other tasks slip. These drivers frequently demonstrate symptoms that police are trained to look for, such as slowed reactions, poor coordination, impaired vision or impaired judgment.

There are, in fact, more than 100 driving cues that may indicate DUI behaviors, which fall into broader categories:

  • Problems maintaining proper lane position
  • Speed and braking problems
  • Vigilance problems
  • Judgment problems

Police officers in phase one will be observing the vehicle to see if the driver exhibits behaviors like committing a moving traffic violation, swerving or weaving in a lane or across lanes, turning with an unusually wide radius, or driving at an unusually slow speed or with varying speeds.

The officer's decision whether to move to the second phase, stopping the vehicle and interacting with the driver, can depend on the severity of the impairment symptoms that he or she sees. Dangerous behaviors, such as nearly striking other vehicles or objects or driving with one’s headlights off at night will likely result in an immediate stop; less severe behaviors, like driving slowly or drifting within a lane may lead the officer to wait and see if the driver displays other symptoms.

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