Category Archives: Field Sobriety Tests
Memorial Day just past and summer is around the corner. Summer months mean beach trips, vacations, barbeques, 4th of July, and this year, my personal favorite, the World Cup. Where there is fun to be had, law enforcement expects drunk and impaired driving. Many of the summer activities I just mentioned do, often, involve indulging in the alcoholic beverage, possibly even a little of the Mary Jane now that’s it’s legal here in California. One of law enforcement’s favorite weapons in their battle against impaired driving is the sobriety checkpoint.
The 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution requires that officers have probable cause and a warrant before they can seize and/or search a person. Well, what is a checkpoint? It is certainly a seizure since the police are stopping people on the roads when they would otherwise be free to drive without interruption. It may be also a search if the law enforcement has drivers take a breathalyzer. So how can law enforcement do this without having a warrant?
In the 1987 case of Ingersoll v. Palmer, the California Supreme Court set forth guidelines to ensure the constitutionality of checkpoints in California. Those guidelines are as follows:
- The decision to conduct checkpoint must be at the supervisory level.
- There must be limits on the discretion of field officers.
- Checkpoints must be maintained safely for both the officers and the motorists.
- Checkpoints must be set up at reasonable locations such that the effectiveness of the checkpoint is optimized.
- The time at which a checkpoint is set up should also optimize the effectiveness of the checkpoint.
- The checkpoint must show indicia of official nature of the roadblock.
- Motorists must only be stopped for a reasonable amount of time which is only long enough to briefly question the motorist and look for signs of intoxication.
- Lastly, the Court in the Ingersoll decision was strongly in favor of the belief that there should be advance publicity of the checkpoint. To meet this requirement law enforcement usually make the checkpoints highly visible with signs and lights.
Three years later in the case of Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, the United States Supreme Court held that the state’s interest in preventing drunk driving was a “substantial government interest.” It further held that this government interest outweighed motorists’ interests against unreasonable searches and seizures when considering the brevity and nature of the stop. In doing so, the court held that sobriety checkpoints were constitutional even though officers were technically violating the 4th Amendment.
Now that we’ve determined that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional, I would be remiss if I did not tell you what your rights and obligations are, as the driver, should you happen to find yourself stopped at a sobriety checkpoint.
Based on the last of the Ingersoll v. Palmer requirements, checkpoints must be highly visible. As a result, drivers are often aware of the checkpoint before they drive up to it. Believe it or not, drivers are allowed to turn around so as to avoid the checkpoint. They, however, must do so without breaking any traffic laws such as making an illegal U-turn.
If you do not turn away, but rather pull up to the checkpoint, the officer might first ask you some questions such as: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Have you had anything to drink?
The 5th Amendment to the Constitution gives you the right not to say anything to law enforcement ever. And don’t! Invoke your right to remain silent by telling the officer, “I would like invoke my 5th Amendment right and respectfully decline to answer any of your questions.” Now keep you mouth shut until given the opportunity to call your attorney.
Surely this is not going to sit well with the officer. They may, at that point, have the driver exit the car and request that they perform field sobriety tests. Drivers should absolutely decline to perform the field sobriety tests. They are an inaccurate indicator of intoxication, but fortunately they are optional. I and many other people would have trouble doing them sober.
At this point, the officer is likely fuming, but who cares? You are exercising your constitutional rights.
As a last-ditch effort, they may request that you take a roadside breathalyzer commonly referred to as a “PAS” (preliminary alcohol screening) test. Under California’s implied consent rule, as a driver, you must submit to a chemical test after you have been arrested on suspicion of a DUI. The key word is “after.” Therefore, when you happen upon a checkpoint and the officer requests that you to take the PAS test, you can legally refuse. If, however, the officer has arrested you on suspicion of DUI you must submit to either a blood test or a breath test.
This summer season be on the lookout for sobriety checkpoints. But should you find yourself about to drive through a checkpoint with no way to legally turn around, know your rights and use them. That’s what they’re there for.
Let’s imagine a common DUI scenario.
A person is stopped on suspicion of a California DUI. The person stopped has read my many posts telling readers that the field sobriety tests are optional and should not be submitted to. So they politely decline the field sobriety tests. Then the officer requests an on-scene breathalyzer known as the “preliminary alcohol screening” test or PAS test. In addition to my posts reminding readers that this too is option, the officer also informs the driver that the PAS test is optional. So this too is politely declined by the driver. Lastly, the officer advises the driver that they are under arrest on suspicion of a California DUI and that, by law, they must submit to a chemical test which can either be a breath or a blood test.
Which test should the driver choose? Breath or blood?
The DUI blood test is much more accurate than the DUI breath test. The blood test is far less likely than a DUI breath test to produce a false reading. Another benefit of a DUI blood test is that the law requires that a sample of the blood is saved for future testing by the DUI suspect’s defense attorney. The defense attorney can have the sample tested by its own blood analyst to contradict the results of the prosecutor’s analyst. This is called a “blood split” and it is commonly used in DUI defense.
The blood test, however, is not infallible. See my previous post:
Since the blood test is more accurate, if a person knows that they have not had much to drink and they are fairly certain that they are under the legal limit of 0.08 percent, then a blood test might be the better option. On the other hand, the blood test might not be the best for someone who is clearly over the legal limit because it will be more difficult to dispute the test results.
Unlike the blood test, the breath test is rather unreliable. Breath tests can provide false readings for several reasons. See Lawrence Taylor’s post:
Although California DUI attorneys cannot dispute the reliability of breathalyzers as a whole during a DUI trial, they can provide evidence that the particular breathalyzer used in an individual case was inaccurate.
Unlike the blood test, the breath test may be a better option for someone who knows they are likely over the legal limit because it will be easier for a California DUI attorney to refute the results. However, many people who are actually under the legal limit may still test over the legal limit because of the same inaccuracies.
Simply put, if you are fairly confident that your blood alcohol content will below the legal limit of 0.08 percent, you’re probably better off opting for the blood test because it will accurately show that you were, in fact, under the legal limit. However, if you think there is a chance that you could be above the legal limit, you might be better off opting for a breath test so that your attorney can challenge the results if you test above the legal limit.
It is, of course, illegal to drive a vehicle while impaired by the effects of marijuana. The continuing problem, however, is: How do you prove that a driver is, in fact, under the influence of marijuana?
Law enforcement currently relies primarily upon the opinions of police officers as to whether a suspect is unable to safely operate a vehicle due to marijuana impairment. The primary tool used to arrive at this opinion is the same as for alcohol impairment: field sobriety tests. These highly subjective roadside "tests", administered and interpreted by a police officer with little training, is coming under increasing scrutiny — as reflected in yesterday’s decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court:
Court: Roadside Drunken Driving Tests Not Valid for Pot
Boston, MA. Sept 19 – The highest court in Massachusetts has ruled that field sobriety tests typically used in drunken driving cases cannot be used as conclusive evidence that a motorist was operating under the influence of marijuana.
The Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday said police officers could testify only to their observations about how a person performed during a roadside test.
But they would not be allowed to testify as to whether a person passed or failed such a test or offer their own opinions about whether a driver was too high to drive.
The justices said there is currently no reliable scientific test for marijuana impairment.
Adult use of recreational marijuana is now legal in Massachusetts, though the court noted it’s still illegal to drive while high on pot.
Absent evidence of impairment based upon field sobriety tests, the only other evidence (independent of a police officer’s subjective opinion), is a blood test. This, however, has been proven to be highly unreliable. See, for example, Can DUI Marijuana Be Detected or Measured?, How Much Marijuana Does It Take to Impair Driving? and New Study: Minimal Impairment from Marijuana.
(Thanks to Joe)
You heard me say a couple of weeks ago that breathalyzers are inaccurate and, as a result, lawyers can challenge the results of a particular breathalyzer. Lawyers, however, cannot challenge breathalyzers generally even though they are inaccurate.
This begs the question: Do you have to take a breathalyzer test?
Like many things in law, the answer is that it depends. In California, there are two different “breathalyzer” tests. One test is required by law, while the other is not.
According to California Vehicle Code section 23612(h), the PAS test “indicates the presence or concentration of alcohol based on a breath sample in order to establish reasonable cause to believe the person was driving [under the influence]…[it] is a field sobriety test and may be used by an officer as a further investigative tool.”
The California Vehicle Code is referring to the roadside breathalyzer, called a preliminary alcohol screening test (PAS test), that officers use to obtain the evidence they need to make a DUI arrest. As an officer makes a stop, whether the officer suspects a DUI or not, they don’t have the evidence needed to arrest the driver on suspicion of a DUI. To obtain that evidence, the officer may ask the driver questions, the officer may have the driver perform field sobriety tests, and the officer may ask the driver to submit to a PAS test. In fact, the PAS test is considered a field sobriety test.
Like the field sobriety tests, the PAS test is optional. Also like the field sobriety tests, a driver should not submit to the PAS test.
In fact, the investigating officer must advise the driver that the PAS test is, in fact, optional. California Vehicle Code section 23612(i) states that “If the officer decides to use a [PAS], the officer shall advise the person that he or she is requesting that person to take a [PAS] test to assist the officer in determining if that person is under the influence. The person’s obligation to submit to a [chemical test under California’s Implied Consent Law] is not satisfied by the person submitting to a [PAS] test. The officer shall advise the person of that fact and of the person’s right to refuse to take the [PAS] test.”
If a driver tells the officer they consumed alcohol or the driver performs and fail the field sobriety tests or the driver provides a PAS sample that shows the presence of alcohol, the driver will likely be arrested on suspicion of a California DUI.
Once the driver is arrested, the California Vehicle Code requires that the driver submit to a “chemical test,” which can either be a breathalyzer test or a blood test. This is called California’s “implied consent law.”
California Vehicle Code section 23612(a)(1)(A) states, “A person who drives a motor vehicle is deemed to have given his or her consent to chemical testing of his or her blood or breath for the purpose of determining the alcohol content of his or her blood, if lawfully arrested for an offense allegedly committed in violation of [California’s DUI laws].”
In other words, if you can legally drive in California, you have impliedly consented to a chemical test if you are lawfully arrested on suspicion of a DUI.
Unlike the PAS test, if you are arrested for a DUI and you do not want to provide a blood sample, the chemical breath test is not optional.
In fact, refusing the chemical test can lead to increased penalties such as a longer DUI school, a longer license suspension, and even jail time.
To sum up, the pre-arrest PAS test is optional and you should always politely decline this test. A post-arrest chemical breath test is required provided the suspect opts not to provide a blood sample.
Field sobriety tests and DUI stops go hand in hand. In fact, field sobriety tests are the things that my clients most closely associate with a DUI stop. Yet, very few people know that they are optional. Because most people mistakenly believe that they are mandatory, they take them and “fail” even though they may not even be under the influence.
So how does a person fail the field sobriety tests while without even being under the influence?
Law enforcement agencies in California and throughout the country use a number of field sobriety tests to gauge a person’s coordination, balance, and simple motor skills. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has approved three field sobriety tests as “standardized.” These test include the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test, the Walk-and-Turn Test, and the One-Leg Stand Test. However, police officers also use non-approved field sobriety tests to gather the probable cause necessary to make a DUI arrest. Those tests include the Rhomberg Balance Test, the Finger-to-Nose Test, and the Finger Tap Test.
Although field sobriety tests are intended to gauge a person’s coordination, balance, and simple motor skills after having consumed alcohol, standardized or not, field sobriety test can be unreliable for a number of reasons.
We all know that driving tired is dangerous. However, while it may be dangerous, it is not illegal. When a person is tired, they exhibit many of the same symptoms of intoxication. Poor coordination, lack of balance, and trouble with motor skills are symptoms of both tiredness and intoxication. Whether the symptoms come from tiredness or intoxication, they can cause a person to fail field sobriety tests. What’s worse is that when a person is tired, they also display other symptoms of intoxication that officers often look for during a DUI stop; bloodshot water eyes and slurred speech.
Many people experience physical problems or disabilities which may affect how a person performs on field sobriety tests. Problems such as knee or back pain would make it difficult to perform the physical requirements of field sobriety tests.
People who are older or over weight, may have trouble performing the field sobriety tests for the same reasons.
Many times people are suspected of driving drunk following a vehicle collision and are often given field sobriety tests shortly after the collision. Poor performance on the field sobriety tests is attributed to intoxication rather than the after-effects of a vehicle collision.
Without even knowing it, many people suffer from inner ear problems. The inner ear contains a small organ called the labyrinth that helps people maintain balance. When the labyrinth is disrupted, so too is that person’s balance. Some of the things that can disrupt the labyrinth include infections and illness, head trauma, age, and tumors, to name a few.
Have you ever been pulled over? We you nervous? My guess is that you answered yes to both questions. It goes without saying that people are nervous and stressed when they get pulled over. When people are nervous and stressed, they have difficulty concentrating. Unfortunately, concentration is a key component in completing the field sobriety tests. Officers will “fail” a person if they cannot follow instructions in performing the field sobriety tests even though it was due to a lack of concentration, not intoxication.
Much of the time, officers have already made up their minds that a person is driving under the influence when they make the DUI stop. This pre-conceived notion in conjunction with a psychological phenomenon called the “confirmation bias” causes the officer to interpret field sobriety test performance as “failing” regardless of how the person actually performs.