DWI: How Sober People Get Arrested

A common misconception that most people have when it comes to DWI arrests is that police officers only make such arrests after they have determined that someone is intoxicated and that it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. After all, that is the legal standard that the State must meet before any person can be found guilty of a criminal charge and all persons are presumed innocent, right?

All Persons are Presumed Innocent – In Court, Not on the Side of the Road

It is a tenet of our criminal justice system that all people are presumed innocent.  In fact, most Americans learn this in high school civics class – if not sooner.  This presumption of innocence is so profound that it can only be overcome if the State can prove you are guilty of a DWI beyond all reasonable doubt.  This is the highest burden of proof that can be applied to any case in the entire country.  The State has the same burden of proof when trying to convict someone of DWI as they do when they are trying to convict someone of murder.

However, this presumption of innocence applies to every person when they are sitting in a courtroom and defending themselves against the DWI charge.  It does not apply to a person when they are sitting in a car on the side of a road and being questioned by police.  A person is not presumed innocent at that point and the police officer is not trying to determine whether or not they are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty of DWI.  So what is the police officer trying to determine at that point?  Only whether or not in his or her opinion there is enough evidence to believe that there is probable cause that the driver might be intoxicated.

Arrests are Based on Probable Cause – Which is Far Less than Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Probable cause is sometimes defined as existing when circumstances or facts lead a reasonable person to believe a crime, such as DWI, has been committed.  But what does that actually mean? While Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is the highest legal burden in the country, probable cause is one of the lowest burdens.  Officer must have more than a hunch, but can be less than 50% sure.  We know this is true because the preponderance of the evidence, i.e. 51% or just more than not, is a separate legal standard that applies in certain civil cases and the law tells us that probable cause is a lesser standard than a preponderance of the evidence.

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” – Does Not Apply to DWI Arrests

While it is true that our legal system is predicated on the famous maxim that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent person suffers, it only applies when a person gets to the courtroom.  The legal standard beyond a reasonable doubt is designed to ensure this.  However, our legal system offers no such promises when it comes to being arrested or charged with a crime like DWI.

Rather, the probable cause seems to be based on the opposite belief, that it is better to arrest ten sober people than let one intoxicated person go. After all, one intoxicated person can present an extreme danger to others on the road.  While this is an understandable position for the law to take, it nevertheless can result in sober people being arrested and charged with DWI.  For these persons, it is imperative that they find experienced attorneys who are able to get judges and jurors to hold the State to the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt when they get their day in Court.

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