Articles Posted in Field Sobriety Testing

The Bill of Rights and New Jersey law protect various rights of drivers suspected of driving while intoxicated (DWI). Knowing your rights may help you make informed decisions about what to do — and what not to do — if the police pull you over. Violations of your legal or constitutional rights by police could give you defenses that you can raise in court. The following is an overview of your rights during a New Jersey DWI investigation.

The Right to Freedom from “Unreasonable Searches and Seizures”

The Fourth Amendment prohibits police from searching a person or their property, seizing property, or detaining a person without a warrant issued by a court. Many exceptions to this rule exist, but police must demonstrate that an exception applies.

Police Must Have Reasonable Suspicion to Stop Your Vehicle

When a police officer pulls your car over on the road, they must be able to show that they had a reasonable basis for suspecting a traffic violation or other offense, such as if they witnessed you running a stop sign or driving erratically.
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Police and prosecutors have several ways to prove that a person was impaired by alcohol in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases. New Jersey law requires any driver to cooperate with some of these methods, such as breath testing. Other methods are not mandatory, but refusal to cooperate could work for you or against you if your case goes to court. Field sobriety tests (FSTs) provide police with circumstantial evidence that you were under the influence of alcohol or another substance at the time they pulled you over. Nothing in state law requires you to perform FSTs when asked by a police officer. The reliability of FSTs is questionable at best, so if you agree to perform them, an experienced DWI defense attorney can help defend you against whatever prosecutors claim the tests established.

What Are Field Sobriety Tests?

FSTs are a series of physical tests administered by police officers when they suspect that a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Police will often ask a person to perform FSTs when they suspect DWI but are not certain that they have enough probable cause for an arrest. Flawless performance on FSTs is unlikely to result in police deciding not to arrest you, because a police officer has usually already made up their mind about an arrest when they ask you to perform FSTs.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has approved three standardized FSTs, which are commonly accepted by New Jersey courts:
1. Horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN): An officer asks the person to look at a stimulus, which could be their finger, a pen, or another object, and to follow it with their eyes without moving their head. The officer is looking for involuntary eye movements, known as nystagmus, which are supposedly a sign of intoxication.
2. Walk-and-turn: The officer instructs the person to walk a straight line, heel-to-toe, for nine steps, and then to turn around and take nine more heel-to-toe steps back to where they started.
3. One-leg stand: The person must stand with one foot raised about six inches off the ground, counting out loud, until the officer tells them to stop.
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Police in New Jersey often ask individuals suspected of driving while intoxicated (DWI) to perform field sobriety tests (FSTs), which allow officers to look for supposed signs of intoxication. Of the three standard FSTs used by New Jersey law enforcement, two are based entirely on the ability to maintain balance. Various injuries and medical conditions can also affect performance on these tests. It is possible for a defendant charged with DWI to produce evidence about an injury or illness to challenge an officer’s testimony about FST performance, although this is usually not the only evidence of intoxication the state will offer. In early 2019, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division ruled on a New Jersey DWI case with this kind of challenge.

The DWI statute requires proof that a defendant was either “under the influence” of alcohol or drugs or had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.8 percent or higher. Prosecutors often introduce evidence of both, for good measure. If a person refuses or is unable to submit a breath sample for BAC testing, prosecutors must rely on evidence that a person was “under the influence.” A 1975 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court established that this term means “a substantial deterioration or diminution of the mental faculties or physical capabilities of a person” caused by alcohol or another drug.

In 2006, the state supreme court ruled that expert testimony, such as by a physician or other medical professional, is not necessary to demonstrate the “influence” of alcohol or drugs. Testimony from police officers who witnessed a defendant’s behavior and appearance can, by itself, sustain a conviction for DWI. This might include testimony about slurred speech or bloodshot eyes, the odor of alcohol, or swaying or stumbling during the FSTs. A defendant with a health condition that could impact their FST performance, on the other hand, usually must present expert testimony.

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Police in New Jersey have many ways to build a case for driving while intoxicated (DWI). They can establish probable cause for an arrest by instructing a suspect to perform field sobriety tests (FSTs). A “perfect” performance on FSTs is essentially impossible and is unlikely to help someone avoid arrest regardless. Defending against New Jersey DWI charges that include alleged failed FSTs means challenging whether police officers correctly administered the tests. A Pennsylvania town recently sought volunteers for an unusual form of police training. New Jersey police have not yet asked for volunteers to get drunk so officers can practice administering FSTs, but the outcome of the Pennsylvania training may change that.

State law allows prosecutors to make a case with evidence of impairment besides blood alcohol content (BAC). The DWI statute defines the offense, in part, as driving a motor vehicle “while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs. Eyewitness testimony from officers, including FST performance, is often the main evidence presented by the state.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has established a set of standardized FSTs that most states have adopted. The set of standardized FSTs consists of three tests:
1. One-Leg Stand: The suspect must raise one foot about six inches off the ground and hold it there.
2. Walk and Turn: The suspect must walk a straight line, keeping their heel to their toe with each step, for a total of nine steps. Then, they must turn 180 degrees and repeat the process until they return to the starting point.
3. Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: The officer holds a pen or other object at a constant distance from the suspect’s face while moving it from side to side. The suspect must follow the object with their eyes without moving their head. The officer is looking for involuntary eye movement, known as nystagmus, supposedly associated with intoxication.

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In prosecutions for alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, the state must prove each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Municipal court judges determine whether prosecutors have met their burden of proof when a case goes to trial. Last year, the New Jersey Appellate Division considered a defendant’s claim that a police officer’s failure to record video of her field sobriety tests (FSTs) should weigh in her favor. The court’s ruling in State v. Belko is a reminder that New Jersey gives prosecutors rather wide latitude in the types of evidence they may use in DWI cases.

The New Jersey DWI statute allows prosecutors to prove impairment by demonstrating that a defendant had blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent, or by showing other evidence that they were “under the influence” of alcohol, narcotics, or other drugs. This could include a defendant’s performance on FSTs, their appearance or demeanor, or testimony from an officer trained in drug recognition.

Municipal judges must weight the credibility of eyewitness and expert testimony in DWI trials. This often requires subjective determinations of how a witness appears in court. As video recording becomes increasingly common, thanks in part to near-ubiquitous smartphones, more and more arrests and other incidents are recorded by one or more people. These videos sometimes serve to challenge the official story from one (or both) sides. Video evidence is often admissible in court, but the Belko case addressed the question of whether video evidence should be required.
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New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) law allows police and prosecutors to establish that a person was legally impaired by alcohol or drugs in a variety of ways. This includes testimony from arresting officers about a defendant’s appearance and behavior, such as an odor of alcohol, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and so forth. Police may ask a driver to perform one or more field sobriety tests (FSTs) in order to assess their condition and establish probable cause for an arrest. The federal government has recognized three “standard” FSTs, but New Jersey police may use other tests in DWI investigations. New Jersey courts may accept those tests as evidence, even though their reliability is highly questionable.

Standard Field Sobriety Tests

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has established a Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) battery consisting of three tests. Each test has standard instructions for police officers to deliver to drivers, as well as objective factors that indicate the possibility of impairment. At the same time, each test has serious shortcomings that make their reliability above average at best. The three tests are the “one-leg stand,” the “walk and turn,” and the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN).

The non-standard FSTs do not have these sorts of objective indicators. Instead, they rely to a great extent on the individual officer’s interpretation of how an individual performs. New Jersey courts may still accept non-standard FSTs as evidence, but they should not give them nearly as much weight as the SFST battery.
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In cases involving alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, prosecutors must prove all of the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The New Jersey DWI statute states that a person commits an offense when they operate a vehicle “while under the influence” of drugs or alcohol. Prosecutors can prove this through testimony, such as by having the arresting officer testify about their observations of the defendant’s appearance or behavior, or through the defendant’s performance on field sobriety tests (FSTs). New Jersey evidence rules govern the ways prosecutors may introduce evidence of defendants’ performance on these tests at trial.

Accepted Field Sobriety TestsThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has created standard procedures for three FSTs. New Jersey courts accept the use of two of the three tests in DWI investigations: the “One Leg Stand” and the “Walk and Turn”. HGN has not been held relaible to measure or check for intoxication, since there are 40 or more other causes of nystagmus in addition to intoxication.

– The “walk and turn” test involves taking nine heel-to-toe steps along a straight line, and then turning and taking nine heel-to-toe steps along the same line, back to the starting point. Officers look for whether the person maintains their balance, stays on the line, and maintains heel-to-toe contact.

Under the laws of New Jersey, driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a motor vehicle offense, rather than a criminal offense. A DWI proceeding still resembles a criminal case in many ways. Just as in a criminal case, prosecutors have the burden of proving every element of the offense of DWI beyond a reasonable doubt. DWI trials in New Jersey take place in municipal courts, with the municipal judge hearing the evidence and reaching a verdict. Prosecutors can introduce various forms of evidence, including certain actions and statements by a defendant that indicate a “consciousness of guilt.” Evidence that a defendant believed themselves to be guilty is not enough, by itself, for a conviction, but it can provide strong support for the state’s case. New Jersey courts have developed a series of rules regarding consciousness of guilt in criminal cases in general, and in DWI cases in particular.

Many criminal statutes include a particular mental state, known as mens rea, or “guilty mind,” as an element of the offense that the state must prove. Perhaps the most well-known example is the legal difference between murder and manslaughter. The offense of murder requires proof that a defendant acted with intent, meaning that they intended to kill their victim. Manslaughter involves reckless or negligent conduct by a defendant that results in someone’s death. Evidence of “consciousness of guilt” can support the state’s theory about a defendant’s “guilty mind.” The New Jersey Supreme Court reviewed some types of evidence of consciousness of guilt in a 1993 ruling, State v. Mann. Fleeing or escaping from custody for the purpose of “avoid[ing] accusation [and]…prosecution,” the court held, could be evidence of consciousness of guilt.

The New Jersey DWI statute’s definition of the offense makes no mention of mens rea. The state does not have to prove that a defendant intended to commit DWI, or even that they knew that they were impaired. Municipal judges may still infer consciousness of guilt from certain acts by DWI defendants. State law requires DWI suspects to provide breath samples to police, and it treats refusal as a distinct offense. In certain circumstances, refusal to submit to breath testing could also serve as evidence of consciousness of guilt. The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that a defendant’s refusal was admissible as evidence in a DWI trial in State v. Tabisz in 1974. The New Jersey Supreme Court further affirmed this in 1987 in State v. Stever.

When police detain and question a person on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution protect that person’s rights. The Fourteenth Amendment officially extended most of the Bill of Rights to state-level law enforcement, meaning that local police are subject to the same constraints as the federal government. In the context of New Jersey DWI cases, the Fourth Amendment states that police cannot detain someone, such as by pulling over their vehicle, without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The Fifth Amendment states that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against themselves, and limits the state’s ability to use certain statements made by defendants against them in court. Exactly when this right against self-incrimination applies has been a matter of ongoing dispute in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has made several rulings specifically addressing incriminating statements in DWI cases.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the right against self-incrimination during police interrogation is Miranda v. Arizona, decided in 1966. Information obtained by police from a person, after they have invoked their “right to remain silent” during “custodial interrogation,” is inadmissible in court. While people can refuse to answer police questions at almost any time, Miranda obligates police to advise people of their rights in specific scenarios. Many subsequent court decisions have found that Miranda only applies once a person has been formally placed under arrest and read this list of rights. Whether a person is “under arrest” during a traffic stop is a complicated question.

Police do not typically give Miranda warnings to DWI suspects at the beginning of a traffic stop. Still, officers may ask questions of a driver, and ask the driver to perform field sobriety tests. With some exceptions, courts do not consider this to be a “custodial interrogation” within the meaning of Miranda. Police are therefore not obligated to advise people of their Miranda rights at this point, placing the burden of invoking the right against self-incrimination on the driver.
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The New Jersey statute defining the motor vehicle offense of driving while intoxicated (DWI) gives prosecutors several options for proving a defendant’s guilt. They can introduce evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) above the “legal limit” established by law, and they can also introduce other evidence to show that a driver was impaired by alcohol or drugs. A recent decision from the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division considered a defendant’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence introduced against him at trial. The decision in a recent case addressed both BAC evidence and observational evidence from police officers who were present at the time of the defendant’s arrest.

A BAC of at least 0.08 percent creates a legal presumption that a driver was impaired within the meaning of the DWI statute. Police use a device known as the Alcotest to collect breath samples in order to determine BAC. A 2008 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Chun, established specific procedures that police must follow prior to and during the collection of breath samples with an Alcotest. A failure to follow these procedures by police can result in the suppression of BAC evidence at trial, possibly followed by the dismissal of the DWI charges. At the same time, a failure to follow police instructions by a driver can result in a charge of refusal to submit to breath testing.

Even if a DWI suspect refuses to submit breath samples, the state can introduce testimony by the arresting officer, the officer who administered the Alcotest, and other witnesses to establish that a defendant was “under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug.” This might include observations of a defendant’s physical appearance and behavior, such as “glassy eyes” or “slurred speech.” An officer can testify about detecting the odor of alcohol, as well as a defendant’s performance, or lack thereof, on field sobriety tests.

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