Field Sobriety Tests Only One Piece of the Puzzle in Alabama DUI Cases

Tags: DUI

Anytime police make a Birmingham DUI arrest, they must have probable cause on which to base the arrest.

That is going to include a number of different elements, including:

  • Witness statements;
  • Crash-related evidence;
  • Your blood-alcohol level, as measured through either a breathalyzer, blood or urine test;
  • Officer observations;
  • Field sobriety tests.

That last one was the recent subject of appeal in a DUI case out of Wisconsin. This case breaks the mold in some ways because typically, we see cases wherein we’re trying to get results of field sobriety tests excluded. Someone submits to the test, fails it and then we try to show why that test is inadmissible or not credible.

In doing so, we point to the fact that these tests are notoriously subjective and lack a strong basis in objective biological science that might prove an individual intoxicated.

In this case, according to a report by the Wisconsin Bar Association, the defendant attempted to appeal his conviction on the basis that the officer did not conduct a field sobriety test and therefore could not prove he was drunk at the time of arrest.

However, the appellate court, citing the 1983 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in State v. Bartelt, ultimately disagreed, finding that field sobriety tests aren’t necessary for prosecutors to secure a conviction. What ultimately matters, the court ruled, is the totality of evidence.

In this case, police came in contact with the defendant when local bartenders called to report an intoxicated patron who was unruly and starting fights. An officer located the defendant, eye swollen from recently being punched, and noted his apparent intoxicated state. The officer identified the bar patron’s vehicle, told him not to drive it and offered a ride home. The defendant declined and said he intended to walk home. The officer departed the scene.

Ten minutes later, however, the officer, back on patrol, noted the defendant’s vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. He turned around and attempted to conduct a traffic stop. However, the defendant turned into a backyard and then attempted to run on foot. He was ultimately caught, and the officer, without conducting a field sobriety test, arrested him for DUI. He was convicted.

The defendant argued that the absence of a field sobriety test made the arrest invalid.

In rejecting that argument, the court found that the officer had probable cause to make an arrest based on the fact that:

  • He was allegedly causing problems at the bar;
  • Independent witnesses said he was intoxicated;
  • The officer, trained to identify intoxication and encountering him 10 minutes earlier, identified him as being impaired at that time;
  • The defendant further implicated himself by fleeing the officer who attempted to stop him.

The appellate justices said at that point, a sobriety test would have been “superfluous.”

Again, field sobriety tests can often be successfully challenged by an experienced defense lawyer. In most cases, if you know you are drunk, it’s usually best to decline to submit to them because there is no penalty for refusal, and in doing so, you are essentially just providing more evidence for prosecutors.

However, what this case shows is that refusing a field sobriety test won’t necessarily guarantee you will avoid conviction. Prosecutors can win a DUI case without field sobriety test evidence. That’s why you need us, no matter what the circumstances.

If you are facing criminal charges in Alabama, contact Alabama Criminal Lawyers at (205) 994-0616 or use our online contact form.

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