Articles Posted in Field Sobriety Testing

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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In any prosecution by the state, it is critically important that a defendant be able to review any and all evidence that could be used against them in court. A long series of court rulings has established defendants’ right to this evidence. Unfortunately, prosecutors and police are not always forthcoming with evidence. In driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, footage from police dashboard cameras, also known as mobile video recorders (MVRs), can sometimes help a defendant rebut the state’s charges. According to a ruling issued by the New Jersey Appellate Division in late June 2016, Paff v. Ocean Cnty. Prosecutor’s Office, these videos are part of the public record. This ruling could be a double-edged sword for DWI defendants, however. They might be able to access their own MVR footage more easily, but so can anyone else.

The common-law right of access, as described by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nixon v. Warner Comms. in 1978, holds that the public has “a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents.” Statutes like the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) also address public access to government records. This is different from a defendant’s right to information specific to their case. In some situations, the government may have a legitimate reason to withhold information from the general public that they must provide to a defendant. Since the Ocean County ruling expands the public’s right to obtain information from the government, it is reasonable to conclude that it can benefit people charged with DWI and other offenses.

The downside to the ruling is that making MVR footage available to the public has implications for DWI defendants’ privacy rights. Footage of a traffic stop, potentially including field sobriety tests, could cause embarrassment or other negative outcomes. This is especially worrisome if video footage is released while a DWI case is still pending, or after an acquittal or a dismissal of charges.

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Police and prosecutors in New Jersey must prove that a person charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) was impaired by alcohol or drugs when they were operating a vehicle. They frequently do this with evidence that a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.08 percent or higher, but they can also prove impairment in other ways. An officer’s observations of a driver’s behavior and appearance, when combined with evidence of the officer’s experience in assessing intoxication, can serve as evidence for the purpose of a DWI prosecution. Field sobriety tests (FSTs) allow officers to evaluate whether a person shows physical signs of intoxication and then offer testimony about how the person performed. The reliability of FSTs has some scientific support, but they remain controversial and subject to challenge by DWI defendants.

New Jersey’s implied consent law requires drivers to submit breath samples during DWI investigations, but this usually happens after an arrest. An officer who has stopped a vehicle on suspicion of DWI might use FSTs to establish probable cause for an arrest. The earliest examples of FSTs probably date back to the beginning of the automobile era. No uniform standard for FSTs existed in the U.S. prior to the 1970s. Different police departments developed their own FST regimens, with little to no scientific study into their accuracy or reliability in assessing impairment.

In 1975, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) retained the Southern California Research Institute (SCRI) to research multiple FSTs in order to identify the ones with the highest accuracy. The SCRI conducted laboratory and field tests, resulting in three Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) that the NHTSA now promotes as a uniform standard for the whole country. They are the Walk-and-Turn test, the One-Leg-Stand test, and the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test.

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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

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