Criminal Defense FAQs
If you have limited experience with the criminal justice system or law enforcement, being pulled over or arrested can be a confusing, frightening experience. The more you know about the process, the less likely you will be to succumb to pressure and intimidation and make the wrong decisions about your case. The following answers to frequently asked questions about criminal law in Alabama are provided by the experienced Dothan criminal defense attorneys at Smith & McGhee. For more information or immediate help in a criminal matter, call 334-708-3158.
Q. Do I have the right to refuse to take a breathalyzer if I’m pulled over?
A. Alabama law in this area is more complex than you might have guessed. The implied consent law says that if you are lawfully arrested under suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI), you are required to submit to a chemical test of your blood, breath or urine. Although you can refuse to take this test, your driver’s license will be suspended for 90 days for the refusal. Also, the fact that you refused the test can be used against you in court, and if you are convicted you could face double penalties for your license suspension and also be forced to implement an ignition interlock on your vehicle. However, the state will not have test results to use against you in court, and you can fight the 90-day suspension in a separate hearing.
Officers may also try to administer what is known as a preliminary alcohol screen, portable breath test, or roadside breath test. They do this when they pull you over and use the results as grounds to arrest and then administer the required state-administered chemical test. These portable devices may be less reliable than an official chemical test. If you are asked to submit to one of these roadside breath tests, and you haven’t been arrested, you have the right to refuse to take the test without any legal consequences for your refusal.
Q. Do I have to take field sobriety tests?
A. Field sobriety tests (walking a straight line, counting backwards, reciting the alphabet, etc.) are another way police officers decide if they have enough grounds to arrest you. Many of these tests are difficult to perform when sober, and many say they are designed for you to fail. Only a very few are approved by organizations such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Also, they are very subjective, and the police officer is the one who decides whether you passed or failed based on his or her own observations.
You do have a right to politely decline to take these tests. One may wonder why someone would voluntarily agree to take a test which is solely designed to give the officer cause to arrest. Most people simply do not know they have a right to refuse the tests, and the police generally don’t tell you that when they ask you to perform them.
Q. How do I know whether to accept a plea agreement or go to trial?
A. This is a question you should discuss with your lawyer, because the answer depends on facts specific to your case, such as the strength of the prosecutor’s case and the strength of your defense, your criminal history, and the potential penalties you face. With a plea agreement, you know what penalties and consequences you will be facing. In a trial on the other hand, no one can predict what the outcome will be beforehand. Remember, though, that a guilty plea is an admission of guilt and will likely leave you with a criminal record which can affect you in many ways, and there is no guarantee that a judge will accept the plea arrangement you negotiated. Make sure your attorney has a history of going to trial and a record of success in court, so that you will not be talked into taking a plea that is not in your best interests.
Your first opportunity to enter a plea will be at your arraignment, which comes soon after an arrest. If you have not retained an attorney at this point, it is generally recommended to enter a not guilty plea at this stage. You can always change your plea later if you are able to negotiate a favorable plea agreement with the prosecutor.
Q. Is it really a crime to lie to a federal officer?
A. It sure is. Under federal statute 18 USC 1001, it is illegal to knowingly and willfully make any materially false or fraudulent statement regarding any matter within the jurisdiction of the federal government. The penalty for conviction of this offense includes up to five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. When interviewing suspects, federal agents will try to get them to make a false statement or one that contradicts an earlier statement, so they can hit the person with a violation of 18 USC 1001. With this offense hanging over the suspect’s head, agents are able to force further cooperation or get a suspect to plead guilty to some other offense to avoid being prosecuted for the false statement.
If you read the statute carefully, you will see that there are many elements that must be proven in order to convict somebody of this offense. While the best strategy is simply to avoid talking to law enforcement without your lawyer present, if you do find yourself facing a False Statements charge, get help from an experienced criminal defense attorney who will defend you and keep you from being railroaded into making other bad choices that are not in your best interests.