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How do police decide if you are drunk

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What Do Police Officers Look For To Decide If a Motorist Is Drunk or Not?

One of the most common questions we hear from clients is, “How does a police officer decide whether or not to pull someone over for drunk driving?” Police officers can use many different pretexts, ranging from throwing a cigarette butt out of the window to improper lane changes, to pull a motorist over; however, most police officers are taught to follow a two phase model when it comes to determining whether or not a motorist is intoxicated.

Today, we’re going to take a step by step look at what an intoxicated motorist looks like from an officer’s point of view:

Phase I – Vehicle In Motion

The first phase of DWI detection begins while an automobile is in motion. During this initial phase, a police officer observes a motorist’s driving habits to search for signs of intoxication or impairment.

The police officer is on the lookout for the following cues:

               Cues While Operating a Motor Vehicle:

An officer is looking for a motorist who has difficulty maintaining proper positioning within their lane. This list of cues includes weaving within a lane, weaving across multiple lanes, straddling lane lines, turning with an overly wide radius, swerving, drifting, and striking (or nearly striking) other vehicles or objects.

               Braking and Speeding Problems:

With DWI detection, law enforcement officials are on the lookout for motorists and vehicles that are having difficulty with stopping or that are decelerating or accelerating fairly rapidly. They are also looking for rapidly varying speeds, such as 15 mph over or below the posted speed limit.

It should be noted that speeding, in and of itself, does not qualify as a sign of impairment. It requires more significant physical and mental faculties/coordination to control an automobile that is traveling at higher rates of speed; however, there are some police officers who believe that speed is a sign of intoxication.

               Problems With Vigilance:

In this category, police officers are looking for signs such as driving in the wrong direction on a one way street, slow response to traffic signals, stopping for no apparent reason, failure to signal lane changes, or failure to respond to an officer’s signals.

               Judgment Problems:

The list of judgment problems that police officers are looking for in an impaired motorist includes unsafe or improper lane changes, following too closely, improper or illegal turns, and driving on surfaces other than designated roadways.

Officers are also going to be observing a driver’s behavior while they are inside the vehicle, such as maintaining too tight of a grip on the steering wheel, slouching in the driver’s seat, obscene or erratic gestures, or the motorist’s head protruding from the vehicle.

After a police officer has initiated a stop, they are also going to be observing the driver’s behavior post stop. Impairment cues they will be looking for include difficulties exiting the vehicle or fumbling with the car’s controls, repeating comments or questions, slurred speech, changing of answers to the officer’s questions, slow response times, and the odor of alcoholic beverages.

As the driver is actually stopping their vehicle, an officer will be observing slow/lack of response to the command to pull over, attempts to flee, abrupt swerving, sudden stops, and/or the striking of a curb or other objects.

Special Cues For Motorcyclists

For suspected impaired drivers who are operating motorcycles, there are special cues that police officers look for. This list includes trouble with dismounting, trouble maintaining balance as the vehicle stops, problems with turning, a lack of paying attention to the surroundings, an inability to drive in a straight line, unusual or inappropriate behavior, weaving, operating at night without lights, following too closely, and the running of stop signs or red lights.

Phase II – Personal Interaction

Phase II occurs when the police officer actually interacts or has personal contact with a suspected drunk driver. These are the signs that most New Hampshire motorists are aware of. Generally, Phase II can be divided into three different categories:


When it comes to sight, an officer is going to be looking for soiled clothing, bloodshot eyes, open containers of alcohol, fumbling hands or fingers, drug paraphernalia or the presence of actual drugs, scratches, bumps, or bruises, and other unusual actions.


In terms of hearing, what an officer will be looking for includes any admissions of drinking, slurred speech, inconsistent or changing responses to inquiries, abusive language or actions towards the officer, or the making of any unusual statements.


With regards to smell, police officers are trained to detect the odor of alcoholic beverages, marijuana, and other unusual odors, in addition to the presence of possible cover up odors, like body sprays or mouthwash.

Should an officer detect multiple signs of potential impairment during Phase II of the DWI detection process, then this is the point where he or she will more than likely choose to administer one or more field sobriety tests or a Breathalyzer test. If the driver should fail the sobriety or Breathalyzer tests, then an arrest will be made.

When to Contact a New Hampshire DWI Lawyer

The majority of police officers are quite adept at their jobs, and their presence in our state is invaluable to maintaining law and order. However, police officers are not infallible, and mistakes can be made. Breathalyzer and field sobriety tests can be improperly administered. What appear to be signs of intoxication can be misread or attributed to another cause.

If you have been arrested for and charged with a DWI in the state of New Hampshire, you are strongly encouraged to contact an experienced NH DWI attorney as soon as you are physically able. Time is of importance. Our DWI lawyers will carefully analyze each facet of your case and then use the information gathered to secure the best possible outcome for you.

For a free consultation regarding your case, please contact our law offices today via telephone, email, or through our website.



Disclaimer: Past results do not guarantee a future outcome. Results include cases in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Attorney Dan Hynes is admitted to practice law only in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This website may be considered advertising. Contacting us does not create an attorney/client relationship. We work with other lawyers throughout Massachusetts. 100% DWI defense does not include pro-bono cases Attorney Hynes sometimes handles, or matters that are taken in an emergency situation.

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N.H. DWI Lawyers Address: Dan Hynes 206 Fair St. Laconia NH 03246 Phone: 603-384-3264