LawField Sobriety Tests in Rhode Island – Proof of Intoxication

December 16, 20200

Traditionally, the Rhode Island police departments have requested persons suspected of intoxication to perform certain physical tests, and inability to adequately perform was considered to corroborate their conclusion of intoxication based on objective signs. Perhaps the oldest and best known test for intoxication was the request to walk a straight line. However, while an intoxicated person will encounter difficulty in walking a straight line, there are also many sober people who cannot walk a straight line and, since the police usually do not know how the individual walks when completely sober, this test does not readily establish intoxication.

Alternatively, a suspect may be asked to put his finger to his nose, to balance on one foot, perhaps with the eyes closed, to balance on a narrow stool, to stand or walk heel to toe, to work mathematical problems, or to do any other task where the results are thought likely to corroborate police opinion of intoxication. However, the successful or unsuccessful accomplishment of any of the above tasks indicates little or nothing regarding intoxication in the light of individual performance differences and the effect of various medical conditions on performance.

The police have sometimes shone a light into the eyes of a suspect and testified that the manner of the contraction of the pupil indicated intoxication. However, medical authorities do not presently consider the manner of contraction of the pupil to have substantial relationship to intoxication, at least when the suspect’s normal reaction is not known.

The arresting officer’s testimony as to the slowness of the pupils to react may be easily discredited as a valid intoxication test if the arresting officer had no mechanical means of timing the slowness of pupil reaction. It also is apparent that the officer is not qualified medically to distinguish other conditions that might cause slowness of pupil reaction. The following cases shed light on the various legal issues surrounding the field sobriety tests.

Traditionally, the Rhode Island police departments have requested persons suspected of intoxication to perform certain physical tests, and inability to adequately perform was considered to corroborate their conclusion of intoxication based on objective signs. Perhaps the oldest and best known test for intoxication was the request to walk a straight line. However, while an intoxicated person will encounter difficulty in walking a straight line, there are also many sober people who cannot walk a straight line and, since the police usually do not know how the individual walks when completely sober, this test does not readily establish intoxication.

Alternatively, a suspect may be asked to put his finger to his nose, to balance on one foot, perhaps with the eyes closed, to balance on a narrow stool, to stand or walk heel to toe, to work mathematical problems, or to do any other task where the results are thought likely to corroborate police opinion of intoxication. However, the successful or unsuccessful accomplishment of any of the above tasks indicates little or nothing regarding intoxication in the light of individual performance differences and the effect of various medical conditions on performance.

The police have sometimes shone a light into the eyes of a suspect and testified that the manner of the contraction of the pupil indicated intoxication. However, medical authorities do not presently consider the manner of contraction of the pupil to have substantial relationship to intoxication, at least when the suspect’s normal reaction is not known.

The arresting officer’s testimony as to the slowness of the pupils to react may be easily discredited as a valid intoxication test if the arresting officer had no mechanical means of timing the slowness of pupil reaction. It also is apparent that the officer is not qualified medically to distinguish other conditions that might cause slowness of pupil reaction. The following cases shed light on the various legal issues surrounding the field sobriety tests.

Police had “reasonable grounds” to believe that a motorist was driving under the influence of alcohol when they arrested her at the police station for DUI after having arrested her at the scene for reckless conduct, where they saw her fall against the back of her vehicle when she first exited it; observed a runny nose, watery, glassy, bloodshot eyes, and a very strong odor of alcohol on her breath; learned that she had drunk three or four glasses of champagne; gave a field sobriety test which she failed; and spoke with and observed her for 20 minutes before giving a breath test. 625 ILCS 5/2-118.1(b)(2), 11-501 (1996 Bar Ed.). People v. Fortney, 297 Ill. App. 3d 79, 231 Ill. Dec. 720, 697 N.E.2d 1 (2d Dist. 1998).

Statute providing that standardized field sobriety tests (SFST) may serve as evidence, in a prosecution for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, if the officer administered the tests in substantial compliance with generally accepted testing standards, violated constitutional provision granting the Supreme Court exclusive rulemaking authority on procedural matters; the legislative enactment was in conflict with Supreme Court’s Homan decision implicitly interpreting rule of evidence requiring expert testimony to be reliable as requiring strict compliance with generally accepted testing standards for field sobriety tests. Const. Art. 4, § 5(B); R.C. § 4511.19 (2001); Rules of Evid., Rule 702. State v. Weiland, 127 Ohio Misc. 2d 138, 2004-Ohio-2240, 808 N.E.2d 930 (Mun. Ct. 2004).

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) and finger-to-nose field sobriety tests produced evidence of purely physical nature, and defendant’s performance of those tests did not compel her to testify against herself. Const. Art. 1, § 12. State v. Riddle, 149 Or. App. 141, 941 P.2d 1079 (1997).

Evidence was sufficient to support conviction for driving while intoxicated; although State did not adduce what, how much or when defendant consumed alcohol, defendant crashed his motorcycle trying to negotiate simple turn under safe driving conditions, when police officer arrived, defendant smelled of alcohol, performed simple tasks with difficulty, slurred his speech, swayed while standing, walked unsteadily, showed all six signs in horizontal gaze nystagmus test, could not perform walk-and-turn test, refused to perform one-legged stand test, admitted he had been drinking, and although defendant sustained abrasions and contusions, he did not appear to be in pain. V.T.C.A., Penal Code § 49.04. Letner v. State, 138 S.W.3d 539 (Tex. App. Beaumont 2004).

Failure of suspect to perform well on either walk-and-turn sobriety test and one-leg stand sobriety tests is only evidence of impairment, and thus, a trial court commits error when it allows an expert on administering the tests, over objection, to correlate a suspect’s performance on either of such tests to a blood alcohol content. Smith v. State, 65 S.W.3d 332 (Tex. App. Waco 2001), reh’g overruled, (Dec. 28, 2001).

Trooper’s visual observations of driver’s car, coupled with fellow trooper’s information that radar showed driver’s car approaching at a speed in excess of the speed limit, were sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that driver was speeding, such that trooper had probable cause to make initial stop of driver’s vehicle and driver’s license could be revoked under implied consent statute for refusing breath test; Department of Licensing was not required to produce foundational evidence to support the radar reading. West’s RCWA 46.20.308. Clement v. State Dept. of Licensing, 109 Wash. App. 371, 35 P.3d 1171 (Div. 1 2001), review denied, 146 Wash. 2d 1017, 51 P.3d 87 (2002).

Testimony of 16-year police veteran regarding his training and experience in administering and assessing field sobriety tests provided sufficient foundation to admit officer’s testimony regarding such tests in administrative proceeding to revoke driver’s license; officer testified he had received training in conducting, and had instructed others to conduct, horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, that he did not use HGN test in isolation to determine probable cause and did not attempt to use it to extrapolate driver’s blood alcohol concentration, and that he had significant training in standardized field sobriety testing based on studies conducted by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Smith v. State ex rel. Wyoming Dept. of Transp., 11 P.3d 931 (Wyo. 2000).

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