Traffic Q&A: Pick and choose which tests to agree to if stopped for drunken driving

Question: “If you get stopped for drunken driving, do you have to do the field sobriety tests? What happens if you refuse? Do you have to submit to a Breathalyzer test at the police station? Is it ever better to refuse?” — Robert, Tacoma

Answer: You don’t have to take the field tests. They’re voluntary. But don’t make the mistake of refusing the blood-alcohol concentration test at the station. If you do, you’ll suffer for it.

Martin Duenhoelter, a Tacoma attorney who specializes in traffic cases, advises his clients to politely decline the roadside tests, emphasizing the word “politely.”

“Poor behavior degrades into misunderstandings, danger and injuries,” he said. “And guess what? Later on, it’s always the citizen who turns out to be wrong, because the officer is the one writing the report.”

Submitting to the field tests amounts to helping the police convict you, Duenhoelter said. But don’t expect refusing to be easy.

“In the real world it’s like this,” he said. “It’s cold and raining. There are 2 million bright, flashing strobe lights in all the Christmas colors right behind you, scrambling your neurons, and there’s a guy with a uniform and a gun standing at your window with a billy club for a flashlight, and he’s asking, ‘Would you mind stepping outside of the car for me and doing a few tests to see if you are OK to drive?’

“Who in their right mind says, ‘Do I have to?’ ”

If you refuse the field test, the officer probably will arrest you anyway.

At the station, you’re much better off taking the blood-alcohol test. Washington has an “implied consent” statute (RCW 46.20.308), which states anyone who operates a car is deemed to have given consent to a test of breath or blood.

“The one at the station is the one that counts,” Duenhoelter said. “If you refuse that one, your license will be revoked for a year on that ground alone.”

If you cooperate and take the test, and your blood-alcohol rate is 0.08 or above, your license will be administratively suspended for 90 days.

“Also,” Duenhoelter said, “the evidence of your refusal will be used against you at trial as presumptive knowledge on your part that you were drunk and so did not want to prove it by taking the BAC (blood alcohol concentration).”