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Knowing your rights

By Rachel Alexander
Arizona Daily Wildcat
October 20, 1998
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Rachel Alexander

Most people are not aware of their rights when dealing with the police. Many people have some vague notion that they should "cooperate" with the police, meaning they will answer the officer's questions, and allow the police to do whatever they want.

However, our Constitution provides for protections from intrusive investigations, although the police are not going to explain this to you. A long history of case law has developed from the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, detailing the limits of how far the police can intrude into your privacy.

If the police knock at your door, you do not have to let them in or talk to them unless they have a warrant, or it is an emergency. The courts have held that this applies to dorm rooms also.

If an officer comes up to you, unless you are operating a car or in a place where liquor is served, you do not have to answer his questions; you do not have to tell him your name, your age or show him any ID. You do not have to let him search you. Ask him if you are under arrest; if you are not, generally, you may leave. If you are behaving belligerently or the officer suspects something, however, he can pat you down. You should not refuse to let him in this situation. If you believe he does not have reasonable suspicion, the best thing to do is to file a complaint later.

The police may pull you over when driving if they have "reasonable suspicion." This covers speeding, weaving or even having a taillight out. Think twice about drinking late at night and then driving without getting that taillight replaced.

If you are pulled over and the police officer thinks you have been drinking, the police will try to elicit information from you that indicates you are drunk. Once he obtains enough of these "clues," he will be able to arrest you for a DUI. You have the right to refuse to give most of this information. By giving the officer extra information, you are not helping yourself. The officer is not going to be more lenient with you if you answer his questions, even though it may seem that way. You should be polite to the officer, but decline to answer his questions. Tell him your name, age and address, and give him your driver's license, registration and insurance.

In Arizona, you can be convicted of a DUI not only for having a blood alcohol content of over .10, but if you are "impaired to the slightest degree." This means you can be arrested for a DUI even if you've had only one drink or the officer thinks you are just slightly tipsy!

The officer will ask you how much you have had to drink. You do not have to answer this question. Saying that you've had two, three or more drinks is information that the officer will put in his report and can be used against you later. Admitting that you have had one drink, or denying drinking at all, however, may be helpful later. [Picture]

The officer may ask to search your car or purse. You have the right to refuse.

He can only search if he has "probable cause," such as if he sees drugs in plain sight, or observes you trying to hide something.

You cannot really refuse to take the breathalyzer test, because here in Arizona your license will be suspended for a year for refusing. However, you have the right to obtain an independent blood test instead from a hospital, and you can take that instead. Keep in mind that alcohol has reached its highest level in your blood approximately one hour after drinking, so consider this in deciding whether to take the police breathalyzer test versus waiting for an independent blood test from the hospital.

The officer will next ask you to take field sobriety tests. You are NOT required to take these tests, and you should not because they will be used against you later. It will most likely hurt you to take them, no matter how capable you think you are. I have tried to do those tests sober, demonstrating them to a friend, and I made all kinds of balancing errors.

If you are arrested, the officer will read you your Miranda rights, explaining that you have the right to remain silent, and can refuse to talk without having your attorney present. HEED this! He will then ask you to waive your rights and just answer a few questions, such as "Do you feel impaired to the slightest degree?" and "On a scale of 1 to 10, how drunk would you rate yourself?" You do not have to answer these questions, which will only be used against you later.

Once you have been arrested, the police can then search you and the area close by.

Arizona just passed an "extreme DUI" law that went into effect this month, mandating 30 days in jail for first-time DUI offenders with over .18 blood alcohol levels. Think twice before drinking and driving, and putting yourself and your rights in the hands of the police.

Rachel Alexander is a third-year law student. Her column, Common Sense, appears weekly and she can be reached via e-mail at Attorney Doug Zanes has reviewed this article.