Archive for May, 2005

Walking Under the Influence?

Friday, May 13th, 2005

The following from WRTA radio in Altoona, PA:

The Blair County DUI Task Force was out in full force over the weekend.  The Pleasant Valley Boulevard checkpoint resulted in the arrest of six drivers suspected of driving under the influence.  One person was arrested for public drunkeness when he walked through the checkpoint. 

(Thanks to Jeanne Pruett, CEO of Responsibility in DUI Laws, Inc.)


Flaws in Field Sobriety Test Studies

Thursday, May 12th, 2005

Proponents of the so-called “standardized” field sobriety tests (SFST) have long pointed to field studies which indicate a high correlation between performance on the tests and actual blood alcohol concentrations (BAC).  A new study now calls those conclusions into question.

Originally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) paid a private group, the Southern California Research Institute, to conduct studies to find which among the various field sobriety tests used by police were most effective and to develop a standardized 3-test battery.  SCRI subsequently reported to NHTSA that a battery of walk-and-turn, one-leg-stand and nystagmus provided a strong correlation with breath test results.

Confronted with questions about those conclusions, NHTSA later commissioned the same researcher who had conducted the original studies, Marcelline Burns, to  corroborate the accuracy of the SFSTs.  Burns accompanied a small number of San Diego officers conducting actual DUI investigations in the field.  After administering the SFSTs, the officers were asked to guess whether suspects had blood alcohol  concentrations (BAC) over or under .08%.   Burns reported a 91% correlation between SFSTs and BAC over-under estimates, thereby validating the battery of tests she had helped create.

A new scientific article now calls Burns’ conclusions into question.  In Hlastala, Polissar and Oberman, “Statistical Evaluation of Standardized Field Sobriety Tests”, 50(3) Journal of Forensic Sciences 1 (May 2005), the raw data used in the validation study were obtained from NHTSA through the Freedom of Information Act.  The methodology used was then reviewed and the data subjected to statistical analysis.

The methodology was found to be seriously flawed in a number of respects.  For one thing, many of the suspects had very high BACs, making estimates of whether a suspect was over .08% obvious regardless of SFST performance.  For another, there was no attempt to isolate the influence of SFST performance from other factors:  officers estimated BACs after the field sobriety tests, but they also took into account earlier observations, such as erratic driving, slurred speech, odor of alcohol, flushed face, admissions as to amount of alcohol consumed, etc.

The most glaring defect in Burns’ corroborative study was that “all police officers  participating in the study were equipped with NHTSA-approved portable breath testing devices”.  In other words, the San Diego officers already had the results of portable breath tests when they were asked to estimate the BACs later obtained at the station!

After reviewing the flawed methodology, the raw data was then statistically analyzed.  The conclusions:

If we consider three ranges of MBAC [measured blood alcohol content], 0.00% to 0.04%, 0.04% to 0.08%, and 0.08% to 0.12%, the officers’ EBAC [estimated blood alcohol content] overestimated the MBAC 76%, 67% and 48% of the time, and underestimated it 14%, 26% and 28% of the time. 

In other words, officers relying upon field sobriety tests were far more likely to overestimate  BACs than underestimate — particularly with those suspects having very low BACs. 

(T)he utility of the SFST depends very much on how intoxicated an individual is.  Accuracy (and specificity) are low when individuals are close to 0.08% MBAC, but if the individuals are quite intoxicated, such as above 0.12%, then accuracy is high.

In borderline cases involving persons at or under the legal limit, then, officers were very poor at estimating levels over .08% based upon SFSTs.  And it is these cases, of course, that are critical.  Suspects with high BACs are relatively easy to single out without the help of field tests; it is for the closer cases, particularly those who are innocent (below .08%), that the SFSTs are designed.  And it is with these very cases that the tests apparently fail. 

Put another way, accuracy in using field sobriety tests is high when they are not needed — and low when they are. 


Driving a Horse Under the Influence

Thursday, May 12th, 2005

From WKYT-TV News in Lexington, Kentucky: 

A Pulaski County man faces charges after police say he was riding his horse drunk.

Somerset police arrested 42-year-old Millard Greg Dwyer Sunday night. A state trooper says Dwyer was riding a horse on Borne Avenue when they jumped in front of his cruiser. The trooper says Dwyer was about to fall off the horse….

Dwyer was charged with operating a vehicle other than a motor vehicle under the influence of intoxicants.

Apparently, a horse in Kentucky is a non-motorized "vehicle".  


DUI Roadblocks for Fun and Profit

Wednesday, May 11th, 2005

In recent posts, I've talked about how DUI roadblocks were ineffective and were increasingly being abused for such purposes as gathering information on citizens. According to a KCRA-TV news story yesterday from Sacramento, DUI roadblocks are now being used mainly to make money for local government:

KCRA Investigates: DUI Checkpoints

Checkpoints Being Used To Enforce Other Laws

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For years, DUI checkpoints have proven an effective way to catch drunken drivers and prevent others from getting behind the wheel, but what some police agencies are now using those checkpoints for and who is being targeted is sparking a growing controversy. The concern is that police are not only using the checkpoints as a way to enforce other laws but also as a way to make money — especially since cities such as Sacramento make $70 every time they impound a car at a DUI checkpoint, even if that car's driver was not suspected of drinking and driving.

Aturo Torres said he was pulled over at a recent DUI checkpoint on Broadway in Sacramento, his pickup truck was impounded and all of his belongings moved to the curb, and yet, Torres said, he had not had a single drop of alcohol to drink that night.

KCRA 3 Investigates found that what happened to Torres is becoming so common that a growing number of lawmakers and immigrant rights groups are up in arms.

At issue is whether police agencies are misusing taxpayer money by using state DUI grant money as an opportunity to crack down on a host of other laws…. "It's misrepresentation. It's almost a fraudulent use of resources," state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said.

KCRA 3 Investigates found that some DUI checkpoints are becoming so large in scale that they involve dozens of officers cracking down on everything from felonies to driving without a license.

Records show that at the Sacramento Police Department's last five DUI checkpoints, officers arrested 22 suspected drunken drivers. But they also wrote 315 citations and impounded 259 vehicles belonging to people arrested for driving without a license or driving on a suspended license…. Sacramento's police chief defends the use of DUI checkpoints beyond the bounds of just cracking down on suspected drunken drivers….

Adding another layer of controversy is that many of those caught in DUI checkpoints are undocumented immigrants. Immigrant rights groups say current law does not allow these people the chance to get a license legally and many can't afford to pay the $1,000 it takes when police impound their cars for not having a license.

Just a reminder: the United States Supreme Court recognized that DUI roadblocks constituted a stop and search without probable cause, in apparent violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, the Court chose to permit the practice — but only because the intrusion on citizens' privacy was outweighed by the "grave and legitimate interest in curbing drunken driving".


Denial of Independent Blood Test

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

When the police administer a breathalyzer, the suspect’s breath sample is analyzed — and then destroyed by purging it into the air. Although it is easy and inexpensive to save the sample so that it could later be independently analyzed by the defense, the U.S. Supreme Court in California v. Trombetta ruled that there is no right to this. (See "Why Do Police Destroy the Evidence in DUI Cases?".) Recognizing that an accused should have some minimal rights even in a DUI case, many states have enacted laws requiring the police to advise the suspect that he has the right to have an independent blood sample drawn so that it may be later analyzed and compared to the breath test results. California’s Vehicle Code Section 23614 is an example:

(a) ….a person who chooses to submit to a breath test shall be advised before or after the test that the breath testing equipment does not retain any sample of the breath and that no breath sample will be available after the test which could be analyzed later…

(b) The person shall also be advised that, because no breath sample is retained, the person will be given an opportunity to provide a blood or urine sample that will be retained at no cost to the person so that there will be something retained that may be subsequently analyzed for the alcohol content of the person’s blood. If the person completes a breath test and wishes to provide a blood or urine sample to be retained, the sample shall be collected and retained in the same manner as if the person had chosen a blood or urine test initially. [italics added]

Sounds fair. Except officers don’t like handling a suspect’s urine or spending an hour or so finding a blood technician to draw a sample. Result: this law is commonly ignored by the police. (Some DUI report forms contain a place for the officer to indicate that he advised the suspect of the right to an independent test, and it is commonly checked off — and ignored.) So what can a defendant do if this legal right is violated? Well, the statute clearly says "shall" advise and collect: it is mandatory, not optional. It would seem to follow that there would be some legal sanction for a willful refusal to follow this law — the only meaningful one being suppression of the breath test. Wrong. Remember: This is a DUI case we’re dealing with. If you look closely, another little provision at the end of California’s statute adds the following:

(d) No failure or omission to advise pursuant to this section shall affect the admissibility of any evidence of the alcohol content of the blood of the person arrested.

Cute, no? The law gives you a "right", and then makes it unenforceable. It is, as we lawyers say, "a right without a remedy". And, of course, since there are no consequences for ignoring this advisement of the right to an independent test, most officers continue to ignore the law. Practically speaking, then, officers do not have to follow the law and advise the suspect of his right to an independent test. There are some court decisions, however, which seem to say that interfering with attempts by the arrested person to have blood drawn may be grounds for suppression of the breath test. See, e.g., In re Martin, 58 Cal.2d 509. And many states will suppress breath test results if the police refuse to permit the suspect to obtain a blood sample. In State v. George, 754 P.2d 460, for example, the Kansas court ruled that breath results should have been suppressed where the arresting officer refused a suspect’s request for an independent test because of the time required to transport him to a hospital and find a physician.