One way in which DUI cases are different from other crimes is that many of them are based upon an arresting officer’s “opinion” that the motorist has been driving while impaired. This opinion is usually based on things such as poor driving, an odor of alcohol or cannabis, bloodshot or dilated pupils, wobbly balance and performance on field sobriety tests.
From the prosecution perspective, this is important because we don’t want people to get away with drunk driving by simply refusing tests.
From the defense perspective, this is dangerous because it gives arresting officers great power to destroy people’s lives, based solely on their claims of “clues of impairment.”
When I was still in law school, I had an internship in a prosecutor’s office, and I remember one Friday afternoon when some prosecutors had a discussion about whether police officers lied about their arrests. Some wondered why so many case reports were virtually identical. Others doubted that an officer would risk his or her career to get someone that they didn’t even know.
Then I became a DUI defense attorney. Coming to court I would see “stack officers” — they had stacks of arrest reports. Some of them would write over 200 DUI cases a year — meaning that they made at least one DUI arrest for each night that they were on duty. Subsequently, several of them were exposed for exaggerating or falsifying DUI cases. I had long suspected these officers, but the State’s Attorneys would scoff, wondering why an officer would jeopardize his badge to get a drunk driver.
Earlier this week I wrote about the ongoing scandal with the Des Plaines Police Department, which brings into question their DUI practices.
Now comes a story about a Utah Trooper who has been exposed for trumping up DUI charges. Somehow she has written 1,500 DUI cases since 2006, including 400 in one year — in Utah, where it is very difficult to purchase alcohol!
Here is an excerpt from the article by Brady McCombs of the AP:
During her 10 years as a Utah state trooper, Lisa Steed built a reputation as an officer with a knack for nabbing drunken motorists in a state with a long tradition of tee totaling and some of the nation’s strictest liquor laws.
Steed used the uncanny talent — as one supervisor once described it — to garner hundreds of arrests, setting records, earning praise as a rising star and becoming the first woman to become trooper of the year.
Today, however, Steed is out of work, fired from the Utah Highway Patrol, and she — and her former superiors — are facing a lawsuit in which some of those she arrested allege she filed bogus DUI reports…
Steed stopped [one person] because he was wearing a Halloween costume and booked him even though three breathalyzers tests showed no alcohol in his system. Choate said he spent $3,800 and had to take four days off of work to get his DUI charged dismissed…
The 49-page lawsuit includes two defendants, but Studebaker said dozens of others are lined up and willing to tell their stories. He said they are requesting the lawsuit be broadened into a class action lawsuit.
Every one of her DUI stops back to at least 2006 should be under suspicion, he said, adding that could be as many as 1,500 people.
The lawsuit, filed in December, also accuses the Utah Highway Patrol of ignoring Steed’s patterns of higher-than-normal DUI bookings and waited too long to take her off patrol. The agency declined to comment.
Steed joined the agency in 2002, and during her first five years, she earned a reputation as a hard-worker whose efficiency led to high arrest totals. By the time she ascended to trooper of the year in 2007, she was held up as one of the agency’s top stars.
In 2009, Steed became a member of the DUI squad. Her 400 DUI arrests that year were thought to be a state record, and more than double the number made by any other highway trooper.
Steed’s career, however, turned. In 2012, while on the stand in a DUI court case, Steed acknowledged purposely leaving her microphone in her patrol car so that superiors wouldn’t know she was violating agency policy.
By April 2012, her credibility had come into question so much that a prosecutor said he would no longer prosecute DUIs if Steed’s testimony was the only evidence.
Just think about that — 400 DUIs in a year in Utah. If she worked about 225 days in a year, that means that she had to have made about two DUI arrests a night.
When someone is given a badge, they are given awesome powers and responsibility. They can destroy lives with one mistaken assumption.
When an officer goes to war against drunk drivers, he or she runs the risk of becoming so obsessed with making DUI arrests that he or she loses perspective. It is like the old adage about “when you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” When you are a DUI cop superstar, every bloodshot eye, every trembling step, every scent of cologne starts to become a sign of alcohol impairment. And that is why we need good DUI defense lawyers and judges and juries with backbones to stand up to these officers to protect our civil liberties.