The Overconfident Police Witness in DWI Cases

Stephen Gustitis recently commented on a study done at Berkeley that ‘debunk[ed] conventional wisdom on trial witnesses’:

The researchers concluded that self-assured witnesses who make a mistake - even on issues of little importance - undermine their credibility by raising doubts about their competency, their ability to judge their own abilities and their motivations.

"People giving testimony, or advice, or opinions should therefore be careful to express appropriate degrees of confidence in their assertions," the researchers write in a summary of their report in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science. "Otherwise, the 13th stroke of the clock will cast the other 12 in doubt."

I take issue with the title of that article, because I doubt that is the conventional wisdom, at least of those who should know. As Stephen says, the study ‘confrimed what experienced criminal defense lawyers already knew’:

The cocky, arrogant, or over-confident witness builds a wall between themselves and the jury. Since normal, ordinary, and reasonable people know we all make mistakes, the over-confident witness projects an air of superiority which juries tend to resent. Consequently, when the witness is caught in a mistake the jury is quite happy to punish him by greatly devaluing his credibility.

The over-confident witness is often one testifying as an expert, but the problem also affects the lay witness. The experienced defense lawyer preparing these witnesses for court will recognize the problem and take appropriate steps to temper their over-confidence.

100% correct. And this leads me to one of my favorite things about DWI cases. Since DWI is an opinion crime, the arresting officer will find himself caught up in this phenomenon in almost every case.

When it comes to evaluating a defendant’s performance on the field sobriety tests, yes, NHTSA has their ‘standards’, but even the manual doesn’t attempt to suggest that everyone will do perfectly. Or even that all defendants who exhibit X number of clues on the [HGN, Walk and Turn, One Leg Stand, etc.] are intoxicated.

Consequently, when asked in cross examination whether my particular client could have exhibited the clues on videotape, but not be intoxicated, the officer has two choices:

(1)   He can admit it’s possible that things other than intoxication could have caused my client’s ‘errors’ on the test.

(2)   He can express with 100% confidence and certitude that the only reason for my client’s foot coming off the imaginary line is absolute proof of intoxication.

Frankly, I’m fine with either answer. In a lot of cases, I prefer answer #2. Jurors know #2 is wrong wrong wrong; and as the study suggests, it will reduce the juror’s natural tendency to ‘believe what the officer says’.

In fact, seasoned officers know this as well. In my experience, almost all of the Austin DWI Task Force officers will testify either at pretrial or at the ALR hearing that the tests are not 100% accurate, and that factors other than alcohol or intoxication can cause some missteps on the FSTs.

Of course, that’s not really such a bad answer either.

[Also see: Certainty of the Witness.]

Cross Examination: Watch the Witness

One of the purposes of allowing cross examination of witnesses is the idea of confronting your accuser. The theory is that the credibility and sincerity of a witness accusing you is best tested by live cross examination.

A few days ago, while sitting in court waiting for my client’s driver’s license suspension hearing to start, I watched an attorney conduct his cross of the officer who administered field sobriety tests to his client. The lawyer had a list of well prepared questions written out, which he then asked of the officer, one by one. Unfortunately, the method he used was basically to have his head down the entire time, reading the questions off of his legal pad.

When the lawyer got to the part about how the officer administered the HGN test, he had a pretty good line of questions he asked, such as:

            How long did you hold the stimulus at maximum deviation?

            How did you measure nystagmus prior to 45 degrees?

            How many total passes did you make during the HGN?

What the lawyer missed, by burying his head in his notes, was that the officer actually pulled a small “cheat sheet” out of his pocket, which gave him all the “correct” answers to these questions. These apparently weren’t notes from this particular arrest (trust me, no officer would make those sorts of detailed notes on every arrest), but just genereal guideline answers.

Not surprisingly, the officer got all of the questions right. But he was just reading his own pre-prepared notes, probably jotted down right of the NHTSA field sobriety test manual itself.

If the attorney had noticed this, he could easily have asked the officer to testify from his own memory of the event, or at least noted for the record that the officer was reading his answers from a sheet. Because he wasn’t paying attention to the witness, he missed this entirely.

One of the reasons I ask for driver’s license hearings in every DWI case is that it gives me the opportunity to cross examine the stopping and arresting officers. Several times, in cases that otherwise seemed somewhat hopeless, I have found out things about a DWI case that are extremely helpful. One of these things can be as simple as… the officer makes a really poor witness.

Complete and thorough preparation for cross examination is essential, but don’t forget to watch the witness testify. Evaluate his demeanor, and always ask yourself this: “Would this police officer make a good witness in front of a jury?”

Texas DWI Driver's License Suspensions

Folks arrested for first time DWI offenses in Austin often come to my office surprised that their physical driver’s license was taken from them before their release from jail.

Many believe that their license is currently suspended, before they have even gone to court. The truth is that the license suspension is not concurrent with the confiscation that happens the night of the arrest.

In Texas, a person arrested for DWI, whose license was taken before they were released, has the right to contest the drivers license suspension, as long as they (or more likely, their lawyer) makes the proper request to the Texas Department of Public Safety within fifteen (15) days.

This blog will cover issues relating to the Texas Administrative Driver’s License Revocation procedure (the ALR hearing), as well as the process by which a DWI defendant may obtain an occupational license to allow them to keep driving to work, school, church, groceries, and all the important places (not necessarily to all the fun places we like to go sometimes).