DWI Rights in North Carolina
If you’ve been charged with a DWI, it is critical to know your rights at every step of the process. You had rights when you were driving your vehicle, you had rights at the time you were pulled over, you had rights at the time the officer asked you to step out of the car, and you have rights now. Being informed about your rights — and hiring a competent defense attorney who is committed to protecting your rights — is key to achieving the best possible outcome in what is almost always a terrifying situation.
Your Rights While Driving
When you are driving a vehicle on the roads of North Carolina, you have the right to drive without unreasonable interference by law enforcement. Before a police officer can pull you over in the first place, the officer must have an objective reason to believe that you are engaging in criminal activity. Barring checkpoints, which are governed by different rules, the police cannot simply pull you over on a hunch that you may be intoxicated. Even if you ultimately blow a .20, if the government cannot demonstrate that the officers who initiated the stop had “reasonable articulable suspicion” to pull you over in the first place, then the Court should dismiss your entire case.
Your Rights During the Stop/Arrest
Even if the police had a legitimate basis to pull you over (e.g. speeding, broken tail light, etc.), they don’t therefore have the right to force you to perform a field sobriety test, or submit to a breathalyzer, or anything else relating to an allegation of drunk driving or driving while impaired. If you are stopped for speeding and the officer has no objective reason to suspect that you are intoxicated (even if you are), then he or she cannot simply proceed to investigate the possibility that you may be intoxicated on a hunch.
This brings up a critical right that is too often surrendered by individuals who are interacting with police. You have the right to remain silent. You also have the right to have an attorney present before answering any questions. If a police officer asks, for example: “Have you been drinking?” It is perfectly fine to answer: “I’d prefer not to answer any questions without speaking with an attorney first.” Even if an officer asks you where you are coming from, it may very well be in your best interest to decline to answer — especially if the truthful answer is that you are coming from a bar, or a party. Seeking the advice of a lawyer prior to answering questions cannot be used against you, but anything you do say can, in fact, be used against you. If you lie, and say you were coming from church, for example, then that too can be used against you, as evidence of your guilt.
You can also decline to perform any field sobriety test, and any portable breath test. Under the implied consent law, you are required to submit to a chemical analysis of your breath (or forfeit your license for a year), but those tests are not typically available on the scene during a traffic stop. You also have the right to request the presence of a witness or attorney (or both), prior to submitting to a chemical analysis test of your blood alcohol content / concentration. After being informed of your rights relating to the chemical analysis test, both orally and in writing, you have the right to request a witness or attorney and the police are required to give you 30 minutes to get someone to the location, prior to administering the test.
Your Rights After Your Arrest
One of the most important rights you have after being arrested is your right to have an attorney present at every single step of the way from that point forward, and you would be well-advised to take advantage of that right. You do not have to speak to police or prosecutors at any time following your arrest, and you should not answer any questions. If you are told that that you have a right to speak to an attorney, you should exercise that right immediately. You should not try to talk your way out of it; the police and District Attorney will do everything in their power to turn your words against you and weave them into a theory of your guilt. Instead, find a defense attorney who is committed to fighting for your rights and advocating on your behalf at every step of this difficult process.