Field Sobriety Tests Get Increased Attention

A recent case out of Tennessee has created some buzz in the criminal defense world given the spotlight it places on the proper weight of field sobriety tests. The Tennessee Supreme Court recently decided to hear the case, Tennessee v. David Bell, and will issue an opinion regarding how much importance field sobriety tests should have in drunk driving investigations.

The case originated in 2009 when Mr. Bell was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving. An officer spotted Bell driving in the wrong lane, something that Bell says happened because of a road detour which caused him to miss his turn and try to turn back the other direction. The officer pulled Mr. Bell over and proceeded to administer a standard battery of six field sobriety tests. To the officer’s surprise Bell passed each one with flying colors.

Despite Bell’s success at the field sobriety tests, the officer remained suspicious and arrested the man, taking him back to the police station where he underwent a blood test, which showed he had a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent. The question that Bell has raised is whether the officer had sufficient probable cause to make the arrest after his stellar performance on the sobriety tests.

The lower court judge who initially heard the matter decided to throw out the case against Bell saying that the BAC reading was illegally obtained and therefore had to be excluded from evidence. Prosecutors appealed the matter up the rung to the state Court of Criminal Appeals. The Appeals Court backed up the lower court judge, saying that the government was trying to have its cake and it eat too. The Court held that the government could not administer field sobriety tests and then disregard the results when they indicate sobriety.

Bell has argued from the start of the case that the officer was correct to pull him over and launch an initial investigation. The problem occurred when the officer continued investigating despite what appeared to be definitive results from the field sobriety tests. Bell’s attorney says the government should not be permitted to insist, on the one hand, that field sobriety tests are reliable indicators of intoxication, and on the other hand, ignore the results when they indicate sobriety.

The questions raised in the case are interesting ones and will hopefully spark a thoughtful discussion of similar issues in states across the country and here in Missouri. If field sobriety tests are so reliable, then why should officers be able to toss the results aside when they want to continue digging until they can definitively show intoxication?

If you’ve had a run in with the law and find yourself in need of a Missouri DWI defense lawyer capable of aggressively protecting your interests, contact our St. Louis DWI law firm today at (314) 863-0500.

Source: “TN Supreme Court agrees to hear field sobriety case,” published at