By EHG Legal Team

Being pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI) can be a nerve-wracking experience. When an officer approaches your vehicle, you may feel unsure about what they are looking for and what to say. However, understanding what police look for during a DUI traffic stop can help you better understand the situation and make informed decisions.

One of the most important phases of a DUI investigation is the personal contact phase, which is when the officer approaches the driver. During this phase, the officer will observe and evaluate the driver to gather evidence for the case. Officers are trained to look for specific cues that indicate a high probability of a DUI driver. These cues are taught by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and include:

  • Difficulty with motor vehicle controls
  • Fumbling with driver’s license or registration
  • Difficulty exiting the vehicle
  • Repeating questions or comments
  • Swaying, unsteady, or balance problems
  • Leaning on the vehicle or other object
  • Slurred speech
  • Slow to respond to officer/officer must repeat
  • Provides incorrect information, changes answers
  • Odor of alcoholic beverage from the driver

Jurors often put a lot of stock into their first impression of the driver during the personal contact phase. Therefore, drivers must understand what officers are looking for during this phase and how to conduct themselves accordingly.

One way to explore the personal contact phase is to break it down into what officers smell, see, hear, and how the driver exits the vehicle.

  1. Smell

The first thing to address is the odor of alcohol. Officers may report an odor of alcoholic beverage coming from the driver, but the strength of the odor is irrelevant. You can’t determine impairment based on the strength of the odor alone. Officers may also make a note of other odors, such as the scent of a freshly lit cigarette, gum, mouthwash, or food. It is important to pay attention to these odors because officers may use them to suggest that the driver was trying to hide the odor of alcohol.

  1. Sight

Officers will look for bloodshot eyes, soiled clothing, alcohol or drug containers, and how the driver retrieves their license. Anything the officer observed should be in the report, and if they don’t report anything about how the driver produced the license, then this is favorable evidence for the driver.

  1. Sound

During this personal contact phase, the officer might listen for slurred speech, admission statements, or clarity. Drivers should answer questions with clarity and should avoid making any incriminating statements.

  1. Exit Sequence

The last thing to examine is how the driver exited the vehicle. Officers will observe the driver’s balance, coordination, and ability to follow instructions. The driver should exit the vehicle without any difficulty, remember to take off their seatbelt, leave the car in park, and walk and stand without any balance issues.

It is important to note that just because an officer observes some of these cues during the personal contact phase does not necessarily mean the driver is under the influence. There may be reasonable explanations for why a driver is exhibiting certain behaviors or physical symptoms. For example, a driver may have bloodshot eyes due to allergies or fatigue. Therefore, if you are charged with DUI, it is important to consult with an experienced DUI defense attorney who can evaluate your case and identify potential defenses.