What happens when you get stopped for suspicion of OWI?

Brian Roebke photo
Officer Gary DeWinter of the Wrightstown Police Department gave a demonstration of a field sobriety test at the monthly Coffee and a Cop program at The River Coffee & Cream last week.

By Brian Roebke
Guests at the monthly Coffee and a Cop program at The River Coffee & Cream learned last week what happens when a person is stopped for suspicion of operating while intoxicated from Officer Gary DeWinter of the Wrightstown Police Department.
He also covered vehicle pursuits, and DeWinter had the crowd’s full attention for nearly two hours, with help from a member of the audience who was “evaluated” for intoxication but shall remain nameless due to her innocence.
DeWinter knows pretty much every adult has taken the wheel after drinking alcoholic beverages and one or two drinks shouldn’t put anyone over the limit, but too many people have too many drinks and then take the wheel, sometimes with tragic results.
“If I’m in the village and working the night shift, I’m looking for people that are intoxicated,” he said, noting officers can follow people in their cars for as long as they want.
“The problem is people just get nervous and that’s when they screw up or whatever,” he said.
There are clues he looks for when he’s testing someone as well as clues when sitting on the side of the road, including driving too slow, weaving, and excessive breaking.
“When we see a clue, then we start observing other clues,” he said. “That’s what gives us the probable cause to make a traffic stop.”
Probable cause is a must for making a stop and there are all sorts of reasons they are stopped, and drivers usually ask them why. “In the state of Wisconsin you have to have a front and rear plate,” he said, in response to one of the things people think is okay.
He may stop a driver for a tail light out, he may walk up to the driver and smell alcohol before or during the conversation.
He gets all sorts of excuses, but he said it’s very hard to hide the smell from him.
“As I’m talking to you, I’m looking at your eyes, I can smell it, so already I know that I am going to do a field sobriety test,” DeWinter said.
That means taking the driver out of the vehicle and running them through tests. In case of bad weather, he may even take them to the police department to get out of the elements to do the test.
That way, the suspect is not shaking from the cold.
Field sobriety tests are standardized nationwide.
If an officer smells alcohol from inside the vehicle, they must test the driver, even if they are the “designated driver” to make sure they are not intoxicated.
DeWinter had his volunteer face him and remove her glasses – so he could see her eyes – and asked her if she had contacts because they can interfere with the eye test.
He asks people some basic questions, including if they had any medical conditions or medications.
He showed her a pen with a tip that was gold, and asked her what color it was. “Silver” was the wrong answer but it could have been a worse answer if she was intoxicated.
After telling her what he was going to do and giving here instructions, she followed the tip of his pen while he moved it around without moving her head.
He emphasized that communication is very important, and he wants the person being tested to understand what’s going to happen before he starts the test.
The entire interaction is recorded on his body cam and squad camera as evidence for court if necessary.
He then led her through a couple foot tests.
DeWinter then brought out a BAC, also known as a preliminary breath test, which tests for breath alcohol content. “These are very sensitive,” he said. “When somebody says, ‘I had some mouthwash,’ or whatever, this is going to pick up alcohol.”
He said mouthwash is going to show very little on this test.
The device starts with a self-check to make sure there is no alcohol detected before the suspect blows into the plastic tube.
He demonstrated for the volunteer how to blow into the tube and after she did, the reading was all zeros.
For people who pass, he offers the tube for them to keep as a souvenir.
If she would have blown more than the legal limit of .08, he would have arrested her for driving under the influence of alcohol because there was probable cause.
Sometimes people offer excuses, and DeWinter said he’s heard “everything under the sun.”
“Let’s say she blew a .06,” he said. “Could I still arrest her?”
Those in the audience were stumped on that one, but he said to take blood from her, he needed to place her under arrest.
A big factor in her arrest is her driving behavior. If she was stopped for a burned out tail light, he more than likely won’t arrest her for .06 but if she’s been weaving all over the road, that gives him justification to arrest her because everybody handles alcohol differently.
DeWinter said he can make an arrest for anything above .04 if other evidence exists, but it’s rarely done.
Instead, he could also make that person call for a ride and have the vehicle towed. “Usually it’s a Friday or Saturday night and maybe even a Thursday night, after about 10 p.m. it’s about a $200 bill,” he said. “It’s either $200 or $3,000.”
DeWinter, however, said every officer can treat the situation differently.
Law enforcement has people who are drug recognition experts to handle situations where the person is under the legal limit but was stopped for driving erratically.
“I will arrest her, put her in the back of my car, and take her to the nearest hospital,” he said. “That officer will meet me at the hospital of my choice with her and when I take her out, we go into a separate room, and that officer has a binder and he will go over everything with her like I just did, and they go much more into depth for the drugs.”
Another twist is if the person stopped refuses a blood test.
The officer fills out some paperwork and sends a request for search warrant and sends it to the county judge on duty at that time (24 hours a day) and almost always approves the search warrant within five minutes that he can print inside his squad car to present to the driver.
If the person continues to fail to cooperate with the officer, perhaps several officers will hold down the driver while a lab technician takes their blood from their arm. The driver is then brought to the jail.
When asked if there was a situation where people reach the .08 limit, he said everyone is different but for most people who have a fish dinner and a couple drinks on a Friday night should be safe.
The first offense is a forfeiture in Wisconsin, but the second and more are considered crimes. Wisconsin is the only state where the first offense not being a crime is the standard. A man from Green Bay has the most DUIs ever, receiving his 18th OWI conviction on Jan. 8, 2021. He was sentenced to five years in prison, where he is currently incarcerated at 76 years old.