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Sunday, November 22, 2009

DWI/DUI Cases: A Former Prosecutor's Perspective

The holidays are around the corner; the start of holiday parties and holiday cheer. With this starts a busy period for police departments throughout North Carolina and an increase of  DWI patrols in the Charlotte area. As a former prosecutor from Orange County, California, I had police officers in my office on a daily basis. I prosecuted hundreds of DWI/DUI cases and took dozens to jury trial.  I thought it would be insightful to talk about DWI/DUI cases and a former prosecutor's perspective.

When a driving while impaired/drunk driving trial landed on my desk for trial, the first thing I would do is look at my arresting agency, specifically the police department who arrested the person, like CMPD or Pineville Police Department. Some agencies were simply more effective than others. Then I would look at my police officer- if I was not familiar with him/her, I would ask other prosecutors in the office or contact the Police Department's witness liaison to get some information on the officer. A DWI/DUI case will often succeed or totally fail based upon the police officers testimony. How thorough was the police officer, did he/she conduct the correct Field Sobriety Tests, how long has the officer been doing this and who trained him/her. Decisions to proceed with borderline cases, like a .07 breath/blood result, would often be made after evaluating the police officer, his report, and interviewing him directly. Of course I would evaluate the field sobriety tests, the results of the breath/blood test, driving patterns and objective signs of intoxication, but I would also do more.

If an inventory search was conducted on the car, I wanted to know EVERYTHING that was found in the vehicle. It was a huge advantage when the officer recovered a receipt from the restaurant where the arrestee was the night he/she was arrested. Many times an itemized receipt would show all the alcohol consumed by parties involved that evening. If the arrestee told the police officer where he/she was drinking or the receipt reflected it, I could send an investigator out to the location and interview the waiter/bartender who served the person. Another must, visiting the scene- always a must. You learn a lot about the road, the lighting and location where the person completed their field sobriety test. If it was a case where the police officer never saw the person actually driving, only saw them sitting in the car or near the car, a visit to the scene was incredibly important, especially if the defendant took the stand at trial. How can an attorney effectively cross examine a witness without having an understanding of the location being described. I cross examined many uncomfortable defendants trying to describe a situation that didn't exist- either they were making something up or they were too drunk to remember it correctly. I used both to my advantage.

As a criminal defense attorney now practicing in North Carolina, I approach criminal cases the same way. Effective representation requires this; a person arrested for DWI/DUI in North Carolina faces severe consequences.  I also know how a diligent prosecutor can effectively develop their case.


posted by Carilyn Ibsen at


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