Category Archives: Field Sobriety Tests

Will the Officer Really have Me Recite the Alphabet Backwards?

(Please welcome guest blogger, Jon Ibanez!)

During conversations about field sobriety tests, I can’t even tell you how many times someone has said, “I can’t even recite the alphabet backwards while sober!” My response is that they’re right, which is why officers don’t usually ask a person to perform this task as a field sobriety test during a California DUI stop. But they can.

If the alphabet is used at all as a field sobriety test, the officer may ask a DUI suspect to recite the alphabet forward without singing. Or they may be asked to recite the alphabet forward with their eyes closed. The officer will then look for the presence of impairment indicators. These indicators include the following: Whether the DUI suspect improperly states the alphabet, whether the DUI suspect sways, opens their eyes, or needs to use his or her arms for balance.

Like other field sobriety tests, the alphabet is a divided attention test. This means that the test requires a DUI suspect to divide their attention between a mental task and a physical task.

The alphabet test is not often used because it is not endorsed by the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This means that it is not supported by research and does not meet requirements for standardization. In other words, the alphabet test is so unreliable that the NHTSA refuses to endorse it.

Since the alphabet test is not endorsed by the NHTSA, there are no set guidelines for which an officer can administer it. Some officers may have a DUI suspect begin reciting the alphabet beginning on an arbitrary letter such as “J.” Other officers may have the DUI suspect stop at an arbitrary letter. And some may have the DUI suspect say the alphabet backwards!

Forget trying to say the alphabet backwards, the NHTSA has determined that the alphabet (forward) test fails to differentiate between drunk drivers and sober drivers.

Amongst other criticisms, the alphabet test does not account for people whose first language may not be English, people who may not have had to recite the alphabet since they were in grade school, or those who are illiterate.

State Supreme Court: Cops Can Ignore Field Sobriety Tests – If Suspect Passes Them

The latest in the DUI “double standard” department:


Tennessee Supreme Court Says Cops Can Ignore Field Sobriety Tests

Supreme Court of Tennessee rules that cops may arrest an individual even after he passes all sobriety tests

The Newspaper.com.  Feb. 24 — The Tennessee Supreme Court decided on Thursday that the only use for roadside sobriety tests is to collect evidence against motorists, using them to convict individuals for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). The high court justices overturned an appellate decision from 2012 that found a driver who passed six of the tests with flying colors should never have been arrested (view 2012 ruling). David D. Bell was arrested on May 13, 2009, even though the trial judge found no evidence of impairment in the sobriety tests when he reviewed the dashcam footage.

“I honestly think that he did pretty dog-gone good on the field sobriety tests, better than most I’ve seen,” Sevier County Circuit Court Judge Rex Henry Ogle observed. “I couldn’t pass them as well as he did.”

On that early morning in 2009, Bell had stopped by the The Roaming Gnome Pub and Eatery located in Sevierville and had a few drinks. He made a mistake and ended up on the wrong side of the road when Sevierville Police Officer Timothy Russell came upon him. On the roadside, Bell performed the four-finger count, recited the alphabet from G to S, and identified for Officer Russell in what year he turned six. Officer Russell rated his mental acuity as “excellent.” Bell also passed the one-leg stand and the walk-and-turn test.

Despite the performance, Officer Russell decided to arrest Bell. Bell moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that there was no probable cause for his warrantless arrest. Seeking a conviction, the Supreme Court justices looked to several other states for sympathetic rulings.

“We recognize that not all courts that have addressed this question have reached the same conclusion as the Delaware Supreme Court, the Alaska Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court,” Justice William C. Koch Jr wrote. “However, we have determined that the approach employed by these courts is entirely consistent with our holdings that determining the existence of probable cause to support a warrantless arrest is not a technical process. Rather, it is a process requiring reviewing courts to conduct a common-sense analysis of the facts and circumstances known to the officers at the time of arrest… we find that performance on field sobriety tests is but one of the many factors officers should consider when deciding whether to arrest a motorist for DUI or similar offenses without a warrant.”

The justices reasoned that under the totality of circumstances, passing the sobriety tests is insufficient to cancel out the effect of other indications of intoxication, including the smell of alcohol and a traffic violation. For this reason, the court reversed the lower court findings and agreed with prosecutors that Officer Russell had probable cause to arrest Bell for DUI and ordered the charges to be reinstated against him. The justices noted that Bell may use his performance on the sobriety tests to raise reasonable doubt of his guilt at trial.

Of course, if the field sobriety tests had been failed, they would have been offered in trial as conclusive, scientifically-based evidence of intoxication.  But apparently they should be ignored if they are passed.  I think this is called a “no-win” scenario for the accused.

(Thanks to Ari Weiner.)
 

Circadian Rhythm and Field Sobriety Tests

Most drunk driving arrests take place at night, often well after midnight. One reason for this is that many police officers engage in "cherry picking" — that is, the illegal practice of staking out bars and restaurants from about 10:00pm to "closing time" at around 2:00am, pulling cars over on some pretext as patrons leave and drive away.

It is during this period of time that the individual’s circadian rhythm is taking effect. This is the 24-hour biological alarm clock in each of our bodies, often noticeable when we experience "jet lag".

Researchers have found that individuals will perform more poorly in tests during the low point of the circadian rhythm — that is, during the hours after midnight and into the early morning.

Unfortunately, it is just such tests — called "field sobriety tests" — that officers use to determine whether a driver is intoxicated or not.

British physicians and psychiatrists reported that "the same blood alcohol level is associated with a significantly greater impairment of different aspects of psychological funtioning when achieved in the morning." "Circadian Variation in Effects of Ethanol in Man", 18 (Supp. 1) Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior 555.

The researchers concluded that "the differences we have found (in field sobriety test performances)…must be attributable to circadian change and susceptibility of the body to its effect."
 

The “Nystagmus” Field Sobriety Test: A Fraud?

The critical part of any drunk driving investigation is the administration of the "field sobriety tests" (FSTs).  These usually consist of a battery of excercises involving balance, coordination and mental agility — and are difficult to perform for even a sober person under ideal conditions (see "Field Sobriety Tests: Designed for Failure?"). 

Although there are many different tests (finger-to-nose, alphabet, etc.), an increasing number of law enforcement agencies are requiring their officers to use only the federally-recommended battery of three "standardized" FSTs.  The most recently developed of these is horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), commonly known as the "eye test".  It is particularly effective in trial not because of its accuracy, but rather because it appears to jurors as scientific in nature.

As I have indicated in previous posts, however, HGN as a test for intoxication is fundamentally flawed and rarely understood or properly administered by police officers.  (See "Nystagmus: The Eye Test", "Nystagmus: The Eye Test (Part 2)", and "Nystagmus: The Eye Test (Part 3)".)

A scientific study (144(3) Science and Justice 133-139) has investigated the scientific validity of the nystagmus test:


The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test was conceived, 
developed and promulgated as a simple procedure for the determination of the blood alcohol concentration of drivers suspected of driving while intoxicated (DWI). Bypassing the usual scientific review process and touted through the good offices of the federal agency responsible for traffic safety, it was rushed into use as a law enforcement procedure, and was soon adopted and protected from scientific criticism by courts throughout the United States. In fact, research findings, training manuals and other relevant documents were often held as secrets by the state. Still, the protective certification of its practitioners and the immunity afforded by judicial notice failed to silence all the critics of this deeply flawed procedure….

In 1998 the integrity of the statistical evaluation of the original research upon which the validity of the tests rested was unfavorably reviewed [5]. In 2001 new research indicated that the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), the cornerstone of the test battery was fundamentally flawed and that the HGN test was improperly conducted by more than 95% of the police officers who used it to examine drivers suspected of driving while intoxicated (DWI) [6]. This summary critique demonstrates that it is scientifically meretricious and that the United States Department of Transportation indulged in deliberate fraud in order to mislead the law enforcement and legal communities into believing the test was scientifically meritorious and overvaluing its worth in the context of criminal evidence….


"Deliberate fraud".  Pretty strong language for a scientific journal.  After reviewing the flawed and deceptive justifications for using nystagmus in DUI investigations, the researchers concluded that the test was essentially without scientific validity.


The state’s argument for the field sobriety tests does not rest on 
proof of merit, but upon 
qui tacet consentit reasoning that those tests have been so widely accepted they must have been subjected to some kind of review prior to adoption in the many jurisdictions where they are used, that somewhere along the way someone would have spotted the flaws and shortcomings. Considering that the student manual was originally considered to be a confidential state document and was only obtained through an Open Records Act request, silence from the scientific community cannot be considered an endorsement of the program.

Blood-Alcohol Level When Tested vs When Driving

It is illegal to have a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or greater while driving a vehicle. It is not illegal to have a BAC of .08% or greater while blowing into a breathalyzer in a police station. In other words, just because a breath test shows a level of, say, .09%, it does not mean that the BAC when the suspect was driving an hour earlier was .09%.

So what was the breath alcohol level when driving?

Well, we’ll never know: There is no evidence of the BAC at the time of actual driving. However, we can be fairly sure that it wasn’t .09%, since the body is constantly either absorbing or eliminating alcohol and the BAC is therefore constantly rising or falling. If it was falling, then we can expect the BAC when driving was higher — .10% or more. But if it was rising…..

Let’s take a typical example. The subject — let’s call her “Janet” — finishes dinner by throwing down “one for the road”, a 12-ounce can of beer containing .05% alcohol. She is stopped by an officer soon after leaving the restaurant, alcohol is smelled on her breath and she is given field sobriety tests. She does marginally well but, to be sure, the officer takes her into the police station for breath testing. About 45 minutes after drinking the alcohol, Janet breathes into the breathalyzer. The result: .09%. She is booked and his driver’s license confiscated.

It will take, on average, about one hour for the alcohol to be absorbed and reach peak levels of concentration in the blood, thereafter to be eliminated from the body. This is only an average; it can vary from 15 minutes to 2 hours; some invidividuals can reach peak concentration ten times faster than others. Dubowski, “”Absorption, Distribution and Elimination of Alcohol: Highway Safety Aspects”, Journal on Studies of Alcohol, Supp. 10 (July 1985). This makes trying to estimate earlier BAC levels no better than a rough guess, and scientists have unifromly condemned the practice. See, for example, “Breath Alcohol Analysis: Uses, Methods and Some Forensic Problems”, 21 Journal of Forensic Sciences 9.

Applying averages to Janet, though, we can expect the last drink to have had little if any effect on her blood-alcohol concentration while she was driving. By the time she is being tested at the station 45 minutes later, however, she is reaching peak concentration. In other words, Janet’s BAC has been rising. At about 120 pounds, we can estimate (read “guess”) that the can of beer has increased her BAC by about .031%.

Translation: the breathalyzer reading of .09% at the station indicates a BAC while driving of only .06%. She is not guilty. But the “evidence” will convict her.

Just to make things worse….As I indicated, attempts to guess BACs when driving earlier than when tested have been condemned by scientists. This makes things tough for prosecutors. Solution? As I discussed in an earlier post, “Whatever Happened to the Presumption of Innocence?”, most states today have passed laws — directly contrary to scientific truth — which presume that the BAC at the time of being tested is the same as at the time of driving!

In other words, unless the defendant can prove that his BAC was different than when tested, the jury will be instructed that they must find that it is the same. In effect, the defendant is presumed guilty. And since there is no evidence of the BAC when driving, there is no way for the defendant to rebut the presumption.

These laws do, however, make getting convictions much easier.