Interpreting the Police Report After a DUI Arrest

The report sets out the police version of events.

The first thing people want to see after they’ve been arrested for DUI is the report setting out the police version of events. In most states this won’t be available to you until your arraignment. Since the police report (and maybe some additional lab reports) will pretty much describe the entire case against you, getting hold of this document is crucial to deciding whether to fight the charges. 

Assuming that you now have the police report, you will see for the first time the evidence against you. This is the evidence you will have to overcome to win at trial. The report will typically contain a checklist for the field sobriety test, a printout of the PAS test, a printout of the breath machine result or (attached to the police report) a lab report showing the blood or urine test result (if you took one of these tests), and a narrative report of at least one of the arresting officers. If there were two officers, sometimes both will provide a narrative if they were responsible for different part of the process. For instance, one may give the narrative for why you were stopped and how you acted when asked for your license and registration, and the other officer may describe the field sobriety test, the PAS test, and the required test.

If you are like most folks who see a police report for the first time you will be shocked. Every statement made by the police will seem like a lie. For instance the report will likely say that your speech was slurred, your eyes were glazed and red, your clothing was disheveled, you had alcohol on your breath, you fumbled the license and registration, you staggered when you got out of the car, you couldn’t stand on one leg without falling and you failed the heel-to-toe walking test. It will also likely tell you that you flunked the horizontal gaze nystagmus test (described above). Defense attorneys will tell you that these observations are so routine that the police are starting to dial it back a bit so they don’t appear foolish in front of the jury.

CAUTION: A victory on the "under the influence" charge won’t help you with the .08 charge.

Many people who think about fighting their DUI concentrate on the difference of opinion between themselves and the arresting officers in terms of their demeanor, their driving, the reason they were stopped, their performance on the field sobriety tests, and what they may have said to the officers in the course of the process. And this is understandable. Nobody likes to be falsely accused. Unfortunately, none of that matters if the test shows that you had more than .08 blood alcohol content and the jury believes it (which they almost always do). Even if the jury believes you on all the other points, and acquits you of the driving under the influence charge, a conviction on the .08 charge will have the same effect as if you were convicted on the other.

Whether or not you agree with all, some, or none of what’s in the report, it shows you in stark terms how the officers will be testifying if you go to trial. The reason you can depend on that is that a testifying officer will use the report to “refresh his or her recollection,” which means in effect that the officer doesn’t have to remember anything to testify against you. It also means that the officers won’t stray from the report for a very good reason: If their testimony is substantially different than the report, you (or your attorney) could use the report to discredit an officer’s entire testimony, and probably win the case. So, in virtually all cases, you can depend on the police report being the spine of the prosecution’s case at trial.

Once you see the prosecution’s case, you’ll need to address several basic questions:

  • Do you have any reason to doubt the validity of the PAS, blood, urine, or breath test (assuming it puts you at or over the .08 limit)?
  • Do you have any reason to doubt the accuracy of the field sobriety tests?
  • Do you have one or more solid witnesses who could convincingly contradict one or more important aspects of the officers’ report?
  • Do you need your testimony to contradict the police and would you be a good witness? 

Excerpted and adapted from Beat Your Ticket: Go to Court & Win, by David W. Brown (Nolo).

To learn more about police reports, see our article, DUI Police Reports FAQs.

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