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Potential Defenses to Driving While Impaired

A conviction for Driving While Impaired (DWI) can have an enormous impact on a person’s life, including loss of license, jail time and heavy fines. For this reason it is extremely important to retain an experienced DWI defense attorney not afraid to examine every possible angle from which to defend your rights.

Although the defenses available in any particular DWI case vary depending on the circumstances surrounding the charge, there are a number of potential defenses to driving while impaired. These include:

  • Blood test issues—A blood analysis used to determine whether the defendant is impaired for purposes of a DWI must be taken during a relevant time. For example, a blood test that was administered three and a half hours after arrest has been found to be taken outside the relevant time period, and was thus excluded at trial. Blood tests must also be administered before any other substance is injected into the defendant’s body (i.e. at the hospital).

  • Chemical analysis test issues—If you are being accused of a DWI, you are entitled to receive your rights orally and in writing before submitting to a breathalyzer/chemical analysis test. These rights include the right to summon your attorney and/or a third party (usually a friend or family member) to the scene witness you taking the test. Law enforcement is supposed to wait 30 minutes for these party(s) to arrive if you choose to invoke this right. The independent third party can observe the breath test and form their own opinion as to the defendant’s state of impairment. Such a person can be a valuable witness to testify for the defense. Not being afforded this option of choosing this right can also render the test inadmissible.

  • DWI checkpoint ignorance—Law enforcement has the right to pursue any vehicle that turns around to avoid a DWI checkpoint so that they may reasonably determine why the motorist turned the other way. However, if a driver pulled over under these circumstances can prevail if he or she can show that they were not aware of the checkpoint by a sign, marking or other observation.

  • Right to confront the witnesses against you—Defendants have the right to confront the prosecution’s witnesses against them at trial, i.e. cross-examine them and dispute their evidence. Evidence presented during a DWI trial can sometimes be inadmissible, and thus excluded, without the witness responsible for developing the evidence.

  • Right to gather evidence in preparation of a defense—Defendants also have the right to gather evidence in their defense. When a person is detained for too long after arrest for a DWI, they are not afforded this right. In the seminal case on this topic, North Carolina v. Knoll, the named defendant was detained at the police station for hours following his arrest. Jail staff would not release the defendant to his father until 11 p.m., almost 10 hours after he was initially detained. The Court held that the defendant showed he was sufficiently prejudiced by not being able to gather evidence on his behalf by having friends or other third parties observe him and form their own opinions of his condition. If you are detained for an improper amount of time following arrest for DWI or are improperly denied bail, and this results in a prejudice to your case, your attorney may be able to get the charges dismissed.

Things that are NOT Defenses to Impaired Driving
  • Anonymous tip—A 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case changed the law significantly as to whether law enforcement in North Carolina can pull a person over based on an anonymous 911 call that alleged bad driving. Previously our appellate courts had been highly skeptical of basing traffic stops on anonymous tips and routinely found such stops illegal. However, the 5-4 opinion anonymous tips can provide reasonable suspicion for a police officer to pull a driver over.

  • Unconsciousness—Although unconsciousness is usually a complete defense to criminal charges, it does not apply in cases where the person’s unconsciousness is the result of voluntary intoxication.

  • Involuntary Intoxication/Automatism—Like unconsciousness, involuntary intoxication is also usually a complete defense to criminal charges. However, if there is no evidence that the ingesting of drugs or alcohol was involuntary, a person cannot use this defense. In addition, North Carolina courts have ruled that the voluntary ingestion of legal prescription medication (such as Xanax) precludes a person from using involuntary intoxication as a defense to impaired driving, even if the person claims they did not know the substance was intoxicating.

If you or someone you love has been charged with driving while impaired, it is critical to speak with an experienced DWI defense attorney who will explore every avenue from which to defend your rights. Arnold & Smith, PLLC is a well-established criminal defense and civil litigation firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our dedicated DWI and criminal defense attorneys fight for the rights of our clients in Charlotte and the surrounding areas almost every day and are highly familiar with the law’s available defenses and local courts. Contact us today for a free initial consultation with one of our DWI defense attorneys about your case.