Drunk Driving & Your Holiday Season – What you need to know about field sobriety testing, your alcohol tolerance, impairment and the drunk driving legal limit
Thanksgiving and the holiday season is upon us and there is no better time to blog on drunk driving in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Most people don’t realize that drunk driving offenses spike this time of the year and so a good understanding of this offense will put a person in the best position if they or a friend is arrested for DUI/DWI in PA or NJ. In this blog, I will explain what you need to understand about field sobriety testing and how you shouldn’t judge your level of impairment based on if you “feel drunk”.
Field Sobriety Testing – National Highway and Traffic Safety Administrations (NHTSA
The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administrations (NHTSA) standardized field sobriety tests often form the basis for probable cause to arrest a person on suspicion of DUI. These tests, in theory, are supposed to evaluate an individual’s motor coordination skills.
The NHTSA has established three (3) standardized tests:
• Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN)
• Walk and Turn Test
• One leg stand test.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN)
Nystagmus is the involuntary jerking of the eyes. This involuntary jerking and a lack of smooth pursuit (horizontal gaze) of a pencil or pen light can mean that a person is under the influence of alcohol or some drug. While involuntary jerking can demonstrate intoxication there are several medical explanations such as diseases of the inner ear, and other physical disorders which could also cause a person’s eyes to simulate that movement.
Walk and Turn Test
The Walk and Turn Test requires that the individual walk on a line either real or imaginary. The person’s left foot must move in a line ahead of his right foot in a “heal to toe” stance. The person is required to keep their arms at their sides and take (9) nine “heal to toe” steps, turn, and take 9 more “heal to toe” steps. This test also requires that the officer demonstrate the movements prior to asking the individual to complete it.
One leg stand test
The One Leg Stand Test, similar to the Walk and Turn Test, requires that the officer provide the individual with instructions and provide a demonstration. This test requires a person to raise one foot approximately six inches off of the surface and keep it parallel to the ground. While holding that position the individual is required to count out loud until told to stop.
All of these tests obviously require some type of physical coordination and many individuals would have trouble completing them even if they had not ingested any alcohol. An effective and proper DUI defense attacks the proper administration of these tests. If one or more of these tests are not administered correctly, the prosecution may fail to establish probable cause during a Motion to Suppress. Remember that a DUI suppression motion focuses on the officer’s conduct prior to the arrest. This conduct or lack of proper conduct is often the best defense to a DUI charge.
Tolerance vs. Impairment – You may not feel drunk but you could still be over the legal limit for drunk driving in Pennsylvania or New Jersey
The severity of the DUI statute in Pennsylvania is based on a person’s BAC level at the time of driving and so a good criminal defense attorney will understand the correlation between consumption, BAC, and time. BAC is measured with a blood or breathalyzer test following an arrest.
The legal limit in Pennsylvania is .08 but most people fail to understand the amount of alcohol that will put them over the legal limit; they usually underestimate it. Alcohol consumption, BAC and your level of intoxication, isn’t a perfect science and it’s really based on the individual person. Alcohol tolerance varies depending on a person’s habit of consuming alcohol and so regular alcohol consumption in most cases will raise your tolerance. A higher alcohol tolerance, however, won’t change your BAC level. It will just alter the way you. Basically, you won’t feel that drunk but your BAC could likely be over the legal limit. Tolerance and BAC are mutually exclusive!
If a person’s body and brain are regularly subjected to alcohol, a change develops within the body to enable a person to adapt better to the presence of alcohol. The average person metabolizes a drink (.6 ounces of ethanol) within ninety minutes after consumption. A person, however, who consumes alcohol on a more regular basis will break down that alcohol more rapidly than a person who rarely drinks. The chemistry within a body’s liver produces enzymes that break down the alcohol.
More frequent consumption of alcohol forces the liver to become more efficient in breaking down the alcohol and therefore drinkers need to drink more alcohol in order to get this same intoxication effect (you need more to actually feel drunk). This behavior doesn’t change a person’s BAC level. In addition to the liver, the brain develops tolerance to alcohol when it is regularly exposed to it. More of a tolerance leads to less for a dulling effect on alertness but again this doesn’t affect one’s BAC level.
So what does affect your BAC level?
- The number of drinks
- How fast you drink
- Gender – females have less water, more fat and therefore a higher BAC on avg
- Bodyweight – more weight = more water in your body = alcohol dilution
- Food – eating slows down alcohol absorption
- Body Type – More body fat = a higher BAC
- Hydration = less hydrated = BAC rises quicker and longer
- Mixers – water and juice slows alcohol absorption while carbonation (soda) speeds it up)
Over the Counter, Prescription Drugs & Impairment
Aside from the above stated factors, a person should also understand the effect that the presence of another medication within the body. Some of these medications in and of themselves can also cause a person to be charged with Section 3802(d). This subsection is driving under the influence in Pennsylvania while under the influence of legal or illegal drugs. Some of these medications, however, may surprise you:
- Aspirin – if you consume aspirin prior to you consuming alcohol you will become more intoxicated with less alcohol. A person shouldn’t take aspirin at least six hours prior to drinking alcohol.
- Tylenol – mixing Tylenol with alcohol is extremely dangerous because Tylenol by itself can cause liver failure. A person should therefore never consume Tylenol (acetaminophen) prior to or after consuming alcohol.
- Ambien – mixing Ambien and alcohol can lead to black outs, sleep walking, or even sleep eating.
- Narcotic pain killers – these drugs (Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin, codeine, morphine) similar to Ambien can cause black outs.
- Benadryl – mixing alcohol with Benadryl or any antihistamine will cause an increase level of drowsiness. While it’s not medically dangerous it can cause increased drowsiness.
Contact Our Criminal Defense Lawyers in PA & NJ
Please click here to contact our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers. We offer free case reviews and serve the following areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Atlantic City, Camden, Cherry Hill, Chester, Conshohocken, Doylestown, Media, Norristown, Philadelphia, Pottstown, Salem, Upper Darby, Upper Merion, Upper Providence, Vineland & Woodbury areas.
For more on defending a DUI in Pennsylvania, I encourage you to read my book “Five Ways to Fight and Win Your DUI Case in Pennsylvania”.