September 21, 2012

Bay Area Police Reconsider Controversial DUI Arrest Procedure

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By guest-writer

A traffic court judge near San Francisco ruled last week that Pinellas County police officers cannot perform a key DUI test off camera, according to a recent report from Bay News 9.

During DUI stops, police officers in Pinellas County keep onboard cameras rolling during the entire arrest process, with one key exception.

Sources say that the officers do not film an important roadside test called the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, which is also known as HGN and is considered the most important roadside test to determine a driver’s sobriety.

During this test, officers look at a driver’s eyes to determine whether he or she is drunk. If the drivers are inebriated, their eyes will jerk from side to side during the test. But this test is the only part of a DUI arrest that isn’t filmed.

Last week, a judge ruled that this practice was unlawful after hearing a complaint from Christopher Hastings, who was arrested for a DUI last year and challenged the legality of the arresting officer’s decision to make him perform the HGN test off camera.

At trial, the state prosecutor asked the arresting officer why he chose to perform the test off camera, and the officer claimed he was just abiding by the police department’s policy. This statement proved true, as the police department does ask officers to keep the HGN tests off video.

This practice, however, was attacked by the defendant’s DUI attorney, who claimed that the policy was intentionally implemented to exclude evidence from trial. The DUI attorney also claimed that the policy was “crazy and archaic.”

The judge sympathized with this perspective, and ruled that it is unfair for the police department to exclude proof of the HGN test from trial but still go to court and testify about the results of the test.

As a result, the prosecutor cannot use the results of the HGN test to convict Hastings. Of course, Hastings allegedly had a blood alcohol content of 0.16 at the time of his arrest, so he still faces a tough battle in court.

But Hastings and his attorney may have stumbled into a watershed moment for DUI laws in California, despite skepticism from some law enforcement officials.

Some observers claim that filming the HGN test will not show a person’s eyeballs moving back and forth, but supporters of the new rule claim that the video can show if police violate procedures during the test. This, perhaps, would be the most important benefit of filming the HGN process.

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The acronyms DUI, DWI, OMVI and OVI all refer to the same thing: operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The most commonly used terms are DUI, an acronym for Driving Under the Influence, and DWI, an acronym for Driving While Impaired.
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