Boasting what some have termed the "strictest drunk driving laws in the Northeastern United States," Rhode Island may be geographically small, but it has big consequences for anyone who violates its DUI rules. Drunk driving is called OWI in Rhode Island, for "Operating While Intoxicated."
The arrest for an OWI will trigger two distinct proceedings, one in Rhode Island criminal court, the other in the administrative offices of the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles. The Division of Motor Vehicles case can result in license suspensions that may last anywhere from three months to several years. In order to ensure the shortest license suspension possible, anyone arrested for OWI in Rhode Island should retain a lawyer and request an administrative hearing as soon as possible.
In order to establish guilt for a Rhode Island OWI offense, the prosecution uses two possible theories. The first of these is the per se theory of liability. Under the per se theory, a person may be found guilty of OWI if his blood alcohol level exceeds the statutory limit, which is set at .08 percent in Rhode Island. Anyone whose chemical tests show blood alcohol contamination of .08 percent or greater will be liable under per se theory even if he or she does not show other signs of impairment, such as slurred speech or inability to perform field sobriety tests. For people under the legal drinking age, the legal limit is much lower, and almost any instance of an illegal drinker driving a car will result in per se liability.
The second possible theory under which prosecutors may establish culpability for OWI is the traditional offense of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while in control of a vehicle. A prosecutor using this theory will rely heavily on the testimony of the arresting officer whose account of the arrest may include such information as general overall appearance, driving pattern, stench of alcohol, slurring or confusion of speech, and performance of any administered field sobriety tests. This evidence is highly anecdotal, but is still extremely useful to a prosecutor trying to make a case.
The reason Rhode Island, like so many other states, uses two possible theories is that there are technical and methodological flaws ingrained in the material of each. In using both, however, the state can eliminate a great deal of doubt and feel confident that the outcome of the court proceedings is fair and accurate.
In administering a chemical test to assess blood alcohol content or to check for blood contamination by drugs, law enforcement officers must use a blood, breath, or urine test. These tests are extremely useful, but because of the amount of time needed to administer the test to the driver, in some cases it can be difficult to assess the blood alcohol content at the exact moment of the arrest.
Since the exact level at the time of arrest is the thing at issue in court, some test results, even results that indicate per se guilt of the driver, may not be good evidence due to lapse in time or because of flawed testing methods.
The other method of developing evidence is through the observations of the officer. While also extremely useful, the officer may not always be in contact with a person who exhibits signs of drunkenness, even if that person is clearly intoxicated under the per se laws.
Neither method is perfect, but the combination of blood alcohol testing and the officer's observations leave lawmakers, judges, and attorneys satisfied that the OWI laws are fair.
Of course, finding out whether the OWI laws seem fair is something that no one wants to be a part of. As always the best advice is, "Don't drink and drive."