Articles Posted in Field Sobriety Testing

The Bill of Rights contains numerous important protections for people against possible overreach by the government, especially in prosecutions for alleged offenses. The Fifth Amendment protects a very important right:  the privilege against self-incrimination. This means that a court cannot compel a person to testify against themselves in a criminal trial. A person invoking this privilege is often said to be “taking the Fifth.” The laws that deal with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey and many other states, however, seem to conflict with this privilege in some ways, such as by requiring drivers to submit to breath testing. It is worth looking more closely at these laws, and how the U.S. Supreme Court and New Jersey courts have interpreted them in light of the Bill of Rights.

The state can present statements made by a defendant as evidence of guilt at trial, with some important restrictions. One of the most famous decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, established that law enforcement officers must advise a suspect of certain constitutional rights before conducting a “custodial interrogation.” The warning that has resulted from this ruling, known as the “Miranda warning,” includes the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney.

Officers must read the Miranda warning to a suspect at about the same time they place the suspect under formal arrest, and before they begin asking direct questions about the alleged offense. These are the two elements of a “custodial interrogation,” and they must be present for Miranda to apply. Statements made by a suspect during a custodial interrogation are inadmissible in court if the suspect has not been “Mirandized.”

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A common misconception in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases involves breath testing and blood alcohol content (BAC). New Jersey’s DWI statute states that a person who operates a vehicle with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher commits a violation, but this is not the only way the state can prove intoxication or impairment. The statute actually defines the offense in two ways:  driving with a BAC above a minimum amount, or driving “under the influence” of alcohol or other drugs. Even without any BAC evidence, prosecutors may still be able to prove that a defendant was “under the influence,” intoxicated, or otherwise impaired. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court issued a ruling several months ago in State v. Kessler, which identified various methods of presenting evidence of intoxication or impairment.

A police officer pulled the defendant over at about 1:22 a.m. He had allegedly observed the defendant swerve from the left lane of the highway into the center lane, putting him in the path of a tractor-trailer. He also claimed that the defendant was driving without his headlights on. The officer testified that the defendant’s eyes appeared “bloodshot and watery,” and the officer could smell alcohol. The defendant allegedly refused to submit a breath sample and did not perform well on several field sobriety tests (FSTs).

The defendant was charged with DWI, refusal to submit to breath testing, reckless driving, and other offenses. At trial in the municipal court, the defendant presented testimony from several expert witnesses. One witness testified about difficulties faced by some people on the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. Another witness testified about conditions, both congenital and injury-related, affecting the ability to perform FSTs like the walk-and-turn and one-leg-stand tests. The defendant denied drinking any alcohol on the night of his arrest.

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The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division reversed a defendant’s DWI conviction in January 2015 in State v. Barillari, based on discrepancies between the municipal court’s findings and the findings of the Superior Court, Law Division. The state had presented the arresting officer’s testimony regarding the defendant’s driving, demeanor, appearance, and performance on field sobriety tests (FSTs). Several fact witnesses and an expert witness, testifying for the defendant, challenged the officer’s testimony and his handling of the FSTs. The municipal court found the defendant guilty of DWI, relying on some, but not all, of the state’s evidence. The Law Division appeared to rely on evidence specifically disregarded by the municipal court. Because of this discrepancy, the appellate court remanded the case for a new trial.

The defendant was arrested on a snowy night in December 2009. The arresting officer testified that he witnessed the defendant “doing fishtails in a Jeep” in a restaurant parking lot. He claimed that he detected the odor of alcohol and that the defendant’s eyes were “bloodshot and watery.” The defendant reportedly stated that he had two beers earlier in the evening. The officer had the defendant perform several FSTs, including the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, in an area of the parking lot with “a light coating of snow.” The defendant did not perform well on the FSTs. When completing the standard questionnaire after his arrest, the defendant allegedly stated that he had four beers that night.

At trial, the defendant called four lay witnesses:  two friends who were with him from at least late afternoon, the manager of the restaurant where the arrest took place, and the restaurant bartender. They offered generally consistent testimony that the defendant and his two friends arrived at the restaurant for dinner. When the manager decided to close at 9:00 because of the snow, he offered to give the defendant a ride home. The defendant offered to warm up the manager’s Jeep and drove it around the parking lot to warm it up and to make room for a snow plow.

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A person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) at the time of an arrest for suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI) is not the only factor police and prosecutors may take into account. Numerous other factors come into play, and a person could be charged with DWI or related offenses even if chemical testing shows a low BAC. This was demonstrated by the recent arrest of a man for intoxication manslaughter, despite a breath test reportedly showing BAC below the legal limit. Defending a case without BAC evidence, or with BAC results that are less than 0.08 percent, presents different challenges than a case that relies on breath or blood testing.

Police arrested a man in Austin, Texas in mid-January 2015 after the pickup truck he was driving allegedly collided with another vehicle at about 1:40 a.m. The driver of the other vehicle was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of the pickup truck allegedly told officers that he had had two beers at a bar earlier. He also allegedly admitted running a stop sign immediately before the collision.

A portable breathalyzer test showed a BAC of 0.07 percent, below the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Officers at the scene, however, stated that they observed enough other factors to conclude that he was legally impaired, and that probable cause existed to charge him with intoxication manslaughter, a specific offense under Texas law. The fact that this case involved a fatality undoubtedly played a role in the decision to charge the driver with an alcohol-related offense despite the BAC results, but the state is not required to demonstrate a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher to prove DWI in all cases. This is true in New Jersey as well as Texas.

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An individual who has made a name for himself publicizing the locations of police checkpoints in Southern California recently settled a wrongful arrest lawsuit against a California city. A police officer arrested him for alleged DWI, he claimed in his lawsuit, after he refused to submit to a field sobriety test. He maintained that he was not impaired, and that the officer had no probable cause to suspect that he was. While we as DWI attorneys would not necessarily encourage anyone to make a spectacle out of their assertion of their constitutional rights, this lawsuit demonstrates how police can infringe on the the rights of drivers during traffic stops, which can lead to dismissal of charges.

The plaintiff, using the name “Mr. Checkpoint,” operates a website that publishes the locations of police checkpoints, where officers stop vehicles at random to check for DWI. He makes this information available to people on the website, via the social media service Twitter, and through text message subscriptions. The practice is reportedly not popular with some law enforcement agencies, but L.A. Weekly noted in 2013 that making this information easily accessible encourages people who might otherwise drink and drive “to think about either staying home to party, finding a designated driver or calling a cab.”

The traffic stop that led to the lawsuit occurred in late 2011. He was pulled over in Santa Monica for allegedly making an illegal right turn. He recorded audio of this incident on his phone. The officer arrested him for DWI when he refused to perform a field sobriety test. He spent the night in jail, his car was impounded, and his dogs, who were in the backseat, were taken to the pound. He was able to retrieve the car and his dogs, and the prosecutors declined to file charges when blood test results showed no alcohol.

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When police in New Jersey suspect someone of driving while intoxicated (DWI), they may ask them to take a field sobriety test (FST) before placing them under arrest. A person could “fail” FSTs for any number of reasons besides intoxication, such as injury, weather conditions, or even just standing on a slope. Challenging an officer’s administration of a test, which can significantly affect its outcome, can be extremely beneficial to a defendant’s case. As the first New Jersey lawyer qualified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to train law enforcement officers to administer FSTs, Evan Levow is in a unique position to assist defendants in DWI cases.

Many people believe that “passing” the FST will allow them to avoid being arrested, but most of the time, police have already made that decision. They usually hope that FST results will provide additional probable cause for the arrest, or that they will serve as circumstantial evidence of intoxication if chemical testing does not provide useful results. The state will try to show that any difference between how an officer explains a test and how a driver performs on it is evidence of impairment. The officer must follow specific guidelines for administering certain FSTs, however, and an error on the officer’s part could invalidate the entire test.

The NHTSA’s Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) consists of three tests, with specific instructions for officers and a scoring system:

One Leg Stand, in which the officer looks for impaired balance. The driver is instructed to stand with one foot about six inches above the ground while counting aloud, usually for 30 seconds.
Walk and Turn, which also looks at balance as well as coordination and attention to instructions. The driver is instructed to walk heel-to-toe along a straight line, turn on one foot, and return along the same path.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), which refers to the involuntary jerking motion of a person’s eyes during side-to-side movement. The officer might tell a driver to look at the tip of a pen or other object, then follow it back and forth with their eyes. The theory is that HGN will be faster or more pronounced in intoxicated people. New Jersey courts do not allow use of the HGN test as evidence of guilt, as discussed more below. Continue reading

The criminal offense of driving while intoxicated (DWI) is most often associated with alcohol, hence the term “drunk driving.” It is also an offense under New Jersey’s DWI statute to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of certain other drugs. While the statute determines the severity of a DWI offense involving alcohol based on several levels of blood alcohol content (BAC), it provides no similar guidance for other drugs. Courts have generally held that expert testimony is required to prove intoxication by certain types of drugs.

New Jersey’s DWI statute defines the offense, in part, as driving “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic, or habit-producing drug,” or with a BAC of 0.08% or higher. The statute creates two tiers of alcohol intoxication for first offenders. The first tier includes people with a BAC of at least 0.08 percent but less than 0.10 percent, and the second tier includes people with a BAC of 0.10 percent or higher. The second tier also includes anyone under the influence of a “narcotic, hallucinogenic, or habit-producing drug,” regardless of the amount.

Breath tests are not effective at measuring the amount of drugs, as covered by the DWI statute, in a person’s blood stream. Police generally rely on blood or urine tests. Under New Jersey’s implied consent statute, anyone who drives on a public street or road within the state consents to giving samples of breath, blood, or urine for the purposes of enforcing the DWI statute. New Jersey courts have held that chemical test results, expert testimony, and layperson testimony are all relevant to the question of whether a person is “intoxicated” due to drugs. Continue reading

A decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court last year limits the ability of police to take a blood sample from a DWI suspect without consent or a warrant. Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. 1552 (2013). The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, and generally requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before searching private property. Police can claim “exigent circumstances” to justify a warrantless search, meaning that in a specific emergency situation, they cannot take the time to obtain a warrant. The McNeely case addressed claims by police that the human body’s process of metabolizing alcohol was an exigent circumstance that justified taking a blood sample without a warrant. In response to the decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court has modified its procedures for search warrant requests to ensure that judges are available to issue warrants.

The defendant in McNeely was stopped by a highway patrolman for speeding. The officer claims that defendant did not perform well in a field sobriety test, and he refused a breath test. En route to the police station, the defendant refused a breath test again, so the officer diverted to a hospital and directed a hospital technician to take a blood sample. The defendant did not consent to having blood drawn, and the officer did not obtain a warrant. Lab testing showed blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.154 percent, almost twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

The state charged the defendant with driving while intoxicated, but the court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress. It held that the warrantless blood test violated his Fourth Amendment rights. When the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the decision, the U.S. Supreme Court took the case in order to resolve a conflict with its own prior decision in Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966). That case held that an officer might reasonably conclude that the breakdown of alcohol in the bloodstream constituted “exigent circumstances,” id. at 770-71, but limited its holding to the specific circumstances of the case. In McNeely, the court rejected establishing a “per se rule” that alcohol metabolism justifies a warrantless blood test. 133 S.Ct. at 1561. Continue reading

As a lawyer in New Jersey that practices only DWI defense, I am often amazed at the emphasis that judges place on field sobriety testing in court.

The reality is, according to the government’s own statistics, the roadside exercises are at best 68% reliable in predicting someone to be over the legal limit to operate a car.

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