Failing the Field Sobriety Tests without Being Drunk

Monday, July 11th, 2016

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.

Physical Problems:

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.

Balance Problems:

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.

Officer Interpretation:

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.



DA Walks Away from what should have been a DUI Stop

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

Police are supposed to be neutral and gather the evidence whether incriminating or exculpatory. They are not supposed to side with either the prosecution or the defense. This simply isn’t the case. More often than not, police try to find incriminating evidence, and only incriminating evidence, even when it might not exist…

…except when the suspect is a district attorney.

Earlier this month, a driver called 911 to report a suspected drunk driver in Silver City, New Mexico. Cell phone video confirmed the suspected drunk driver’s poor driving.

When Silver City police arrived, they noticed that the suspect was recently re-elected district attorney of Grant, Luna, and Hidalgo counties, Francesca Estevez.

An officer’s body camera captured the bizarre interaction between police and Estevez.  

"I have a flat! And I kept going over, and over!" Estevez said from inside the car. "I was coming in from Deming and the car kept swinging this way!"

Moments later, Estevez said that she was coming from Lordsburg.

In addition to the inconsistent statement, Estevez was slurring her speech, having trouble on her feet, fumbling with her phone, and went on a strange rant.

“We don’t want the U.S. Department of Justice to start looking down here,” she said. “It’s gotten to that point. Most of you are good.”

“What do you think?” asked Officer Leticia Lopez who was wearing the body camera. “She’s loaded, she almost fell down,” responded Officer Kyle Spurgeon.

New Mexico State Police were called in to assist with the stop. However, Officer Alyssa Carasco of the New Mexico State Police Department appeared to be disinterested in initiating a DUI investigation.

“If you have a problem with me not doing anything, then you can go ahead and do something. I’m not,” Carasco told Lopez.

Then the video appears to show Estevez appear to practice a heel-to-toe field sobriety test along a crack in the sidewalk.

What’s more, as Estevez was allowed to drive away, she ran into a curb right in front of the officers.

Had this been anyone else (well except maybe another officer), they would have been investigated and arrested on suspicion of DUI.

And so I ask: Who are the police working for?

New Mexico State Police has launched an internal investigation. It has yet to be determined whether Silver City Police will do the same.


Supreme Court Says Warrantless Blood Test Illegal, but not Warrantless Breath Tests

Monday, June 27th, 2016

In December of last year, both Lawrence Taylor and I wrote about the United States Supreme Court’s announcement that it would review the criminalization of chemical test refusals following a DUI stop. On June 23rd, that decision was announced.

In a split decision, the Court held that states can punish a person for refusing a chemical breath tests following a DUI stop absent a warrant. States, on the other hand, cannot punish a person for refusing a chemical blood test absent a warrant.

In late 2015, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a decision that decriminalized chemical test refusals in DUI cases. Prior to the decision, it was a petty misdemeanor to refuse a chemical test after a DUI arrest punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

The Hawaii Supreme Court reasoned that criminalizing a chemical test refusal violated the 4th Amendment because we have the right against warrantless searches by law enforcement and the government cannot punish us for essentially invoking our 4th Amendment right. Furthermore, any consent to search (which is what a chemical test is; a search for alcohol in your breath or blood) cannot be voluntary if our only options are giving up a constitutional right or be punished.

Similar cases to that of Hawaii’s coming from North Dakota and Minnesota prompted the United States Supreme Court to take up the issue.

The decision affects thirteen states which make it a crime or increases penalties for to refusing to take a chemical test. Amongst those states is California where a prosecutor can allege that a person refused the chemical test in addition to the DUI charge in the criminal complaint. If the refusal is found to be true, a person can face additional penalties through the court case and a longer suspension of driving privileges through the DMV.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that breath tests do not implicate “significant privacy concerns.” Alito went on to say that breath tests are different than blood tests which require the piercing of skin and leaves a biological sample in the government’s possession. Breath tests, on the other hand, only require a person to blow into machine.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said they would have gone further and required search warrants for both breath and blood alcohol tests. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying he would have found both tests constitutional.

So what does this mean for California?

Well, we’ll just have to wait and see exactly how this plays out. However, based on the Court’s decision, California courts and the California DMV can still punish people for refusing a chemical test after a DUI arrest, but only if the chemical test is a breath test. If the only chemical test that is available is a blood test after a DUI arrest, officers must obtain a warrant before forcing a person to submit to the blood test and a person cannot be punished for refusing that blood test absent that warrant.

This decision, unfortunately, is yet one more example of the erosion of our constitutional rights. The 4th Amendment and the warrant requirement was written to ensure that searches are not arbitrary capricious. Warrants ensure that searches are reasonable so as to protect the privacy of citizens. There mere arrest of a person does not make a search, be it a breath test or otherwise, per se reasonable.

Chisel, chip, and off falls our 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.


Entrapment as a Defense to a California DUI?

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

Many of my clients, especially those who have been arrested at a DUI checkpoint, often ask whether entrapment can be a defense to a California drunk driving charge. Another scenario where the defense of entrapment is inquired about is when an officer parks his vehicle outside of some alcohol-serving establishment and waits for an unsuspecting patron to hop behind the wheel after having one too many drinks.

Unfortunately in both scenarios entrapment cannot be used as a defense.

According to People v. West, (1956) 139 Cal.App.2d Supp. 923, 924, “Entrapment is the conception and planning of an offense by an officer and his procurement of its commission by one who would not have perpetrated it except for the trickery, persuasion, or fraud of the officer. Persuasion or allurement must be used to entrap.”

People v. Barraza, (1979) 23 Cal.3d 675, 689, simplified the definition of entrapment when it concluded, “[T]he proper test of entrapment in California is the following: was the conduct of the law enforcement agent likely to induce a normally law-abiding person to commit the offense?”

In other words, for purposes of a California DUI charge, law enforcement must compel a person to drink and/or compel them to drive when that person would not have otherwise done either.

An example of this would be when an officer finds an intoxicated person in a vehicle who does not plan on driving and the officer then forces them to drive. Since the person would not have driven but for the officer’s demand, an entrapment has occurred. Although unlikely, it has happened.

While DUI checkpoints may be viewed upon as a “trap,” it does not fall within the definition set forth above. People who drive drunk are already driving drunk when they happen upon a DUI checkpoint. Law enforcement is not compelling the drunk driver to drink nor drive.

Furthermore, DUI checkpoints time and time again have been held by numerous courts to be constitutional. In fact, in California, one of the requirements a DUI checkpoint must adhere to in order to be constitutional is that drivers must be allowed to lawfully turn away from the checkpoint. Yes, that’s right. Drivers cannot be forced to go through a DUI checkpoint.

Often times, officers will park themselves outside of a bar or other alcohol-serving establishment and wait until they see a patron drive away. This is when the officer pulls the person over.

If the person voluntarily drives away from the establishment drunk, the officer has not forced the person to neither drink nor drive. The officer is merely observing the illegal acts of a person from a public place where he or she has a right to be.

Now, the officer must have probable cause to believe that a person is driving drunk before an arrest can be made. The mere leaving a bar does not give the officer probable cause that a person is driving drunk, although the officer may suspect the person is driving drunk. If, however, an officer observes a person commit a traffic violation after leaving a bar, they can be pulled over. The traffic violation stop can be used as a pretext to investigate for a DUI.

Unfortunately, while both California DUI checkpoints and law enforcement bar stakeouts are intended to “trap” drunk drivers, neither give rise to the entrapment defense.


Can Body Cameras Assist in DUI Stops?

Monday, March 14th, 2016

It’s no big secret that many people have come to distrust law enforcement. The public distrust peaked in recent times after the highly publicized, and criticized, officer-involved shootings of Kelly Thomas, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddy Gray, to name a few.

In response, several law enforcement agencies began to issue body cameras to their officers with the hopes that incidences like these stop or, at a minimum, provide unbiased, objective information on what actually occurred.

In fact, even President Barack Obama urged law enforcement agencies throughout the country to issue body cameras to officers and offered $20 million in federal funds towards obtaining them.

As of April this year, Davis Police will be the latest law enforcement agency to be equipped with body cameras to record interactions with the public.

“It’s a great evidence-gathering tool for us,” said Lt. Tom Waltz. “It’s also another level of transparency. In situations where there’s a dispute about what occurred, we have a recording of it.

Davis officers will not be allowed to delete or modify footage obtained from the body cameras. They will however, be allowed to view the footage before giving a statement or preparing a police report. The footage will be uploaded to a server following an officer’s shift, or the footage can be uploaded immediately in cases where it is necessary to view the footage immediately.

With the use of body cameras increasing amongst law enforcement agencies here in California, the questions arises, “what effect will body cameras have on DUI stops?”

Many law enforcement agencies currently use what are commonly known as “dash cams;” cameras mounted to the dash of police squad cars. The cameras capture the DUI stop and provide information on whether the officer had the probable cause to make the traffic stop. The camera, however, is limited in that it cannot capture what the officer regularly uses as a justification to begin investigating and ultimately making an arrest for a DUI; the up-close interaction with the person whom they’ve pulled over.

What’s more, when officers have a person perform field sobriety tests, they often take them out of the view of the dash cam. The officers then prepare a police report which indicates that the person failed the field sobriety test, sometimes without even explaining how or why they came to the conclusion that the person failed.

The job of police is to obtain information and evidence objectively. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.  Officer testimony and police reports are regularly made for the purpose of securing a DUI conviction and, as such, are biased.

A body camera, however, would serve to provide first-hand evidence to support officer claims that a person was, in fact driving drunk. If an officer justifies a DUI arrest by claiming that an arrestee had slurred speech and bloodshot, watery eyes, the footage would verify the officer’s claims. If an officer determines that a person failed field sobriety tests, the footage from the body camera could support the officer’s interpretation of the person’s performance.

Lt. Waltz of the Davis Police Department used a word that I think captures what will hopefully become effect of using body cameras for law enforcement; transparency. The purpose of the body camera is not necessarily to find incriminating evidence, exculpatory evidence, or even evidence of police misconduct. The purpose of the body camera is to find the truth and if that’s what it provides, I’m on board.