The standardized field sobriety tests are voluntary and people in California have a right to refuse them. The officer does not need probable cause to ask someone to perform them. If the officer suspects that an individual is impaired due to alcohol, drugs or a combination of the two, then the officer can request the individual submit to some field sobriety tests.
The officer should advise the individual that the tests are voluntary. Most officer, however, just tell the person they are going to have them perform some tests and do not ask permission to administer the tests. It is up to the individual to decline, and that is what I advise them to do, with very limited exception.
How Often Do Police Officers Utilize The Standardized Field Sobriety Tests?
The standardized field sobriety tests have been around for several decades, in some form or another, and are typically used in every arrest and every contact unless the individual declines to perform them.
How Are The Standardized Field Sobriety Tests Used Against Someone In Court?
The field sobriety tests are used to build a case against an individual and justify the arrest. When an officer is questioned as to why he made the arrest, he will say he did so based on the totality of circumstances that led him to believe the driver was impaired to such a degree that he could not safely operate a motor vehicle.
The totality of circumstances includes the pre-contact driving the officer observes. Weaving in traffic, speeding, etc. can be used against the individual. Even having a tail light out, which has nothing to do with driving, can also be used to justify the officer believing the driver was impaired.
The field sobriety tests go toward probable cause for the arrest. If the driver is stopped for speeding, without the sobriety tests and/or an odor of alcohol, the officer likely has no probable cause to arrest the driver. If he smells alcohol on the driver’s breath, or if the driver admits to drinking, the officer has an arguable basis for arrest. Once the tests are performed, the officer can arrest the person because he can document that the driver did poorly on the tests – even if there was no other indication that the person was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In the case of a drug related DUI, where there is no alcohol smell, the tests play a big role in triggering a DUI arrest.
Do The Standardized Field Sobriety Tests Hold A Lot Of Weight In Court?
Yes, the tests carry a lot of weight with the officer, the DA, and probably with most jurors. The problem is that, logically, the best way to gauge whether or not someone was under the influence is to look at their driving. The officer can say whatever they want about the sobriety tests, but that does not mean the person was impaired.
One of the standardized field sobriety tests is the one leg stand. The individual stands at attention with their arms at their sides and looks straight ahead. If the person sways, the officer will write that in the report, even if it they only swayed half an inch. The officer will always say that he took any environmental factors (like the wind speed) into account, but they can never explain how that was calculated. They interpret the tests subjectively. Realistically, most officers do not have any idea of what they are looking for, or why.
I have seen instances where, during the one leg stand, the person dropped their leg, picked it up and kept counting and the officer counted that against the person. When asked during cross-examination if they had told the person that dropping their leg would be counted against them, the officer said no, they had not advised the individual of that, so they’ve essentially set the person up for failure. The person taking the test has no idea what their grade is based on.
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