How important are field sobriety exercises in DUI cases?
Many people think that field sobriety exercises are the first thing that happens in any DUI arrest. But while these exercises are important, what happens before them is even more important in defending your DUI case.
Leading up to field sobriety exercises:
In a DUI traffic stop, the police officer will first look for “indicators of impairment” to justify detaining you for a DUI investigation. Simply committing a traffic infraction, like running a stop sign or drifting over a yellow line, is not enough. The officer must have some kind of concrete evidence that you could be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while driving. The traditional indicators of impairment are the odor of alcohol, slurred speech, bloodshot glassy eyes, and fumbling through your license and registration paperwork.
If the officer doesn’t notice enough indicators of impairment, the Fourth Amendment protects you from being detained for a DUI investigation. While the officer can still ask you if you are willing to perform field sobriety exercises, the officer can’t tell you to perform them unless he or she has probable cause to believe you’re impaired.
Words matter – the difference between asking and telling:
See if you can spot the difference between these two statements:
“Ok, would you agree to step out of your car and perform field sobriety exercises?”
“Ok, now I’m going to have you step out of your car to perform field sobriety exercises.”
While they may look and sound very similar, these two statements can have very different meanings in court. In the first statement the officer is making a request. In the second statement the officer is telling you what to do.
So why is this so important?
In order to tell you to do field sobriety exercises the officer must have probable cause to believe you’re impaired. In order to have probable cause the officer must see more evidence that you are impaired than just slurred speech and glassy eyes. This is a higher standard than the standard used if the officer merely requests that you perform the exercises. In many DUI cases this very small difference can make the difference between a conviction for DUI and having the case dropped or reduced to a reckless driving.
An important distinction:
Sometimes the officer will tell someone to perform the field sobriety exercises without having enough evidence for probable cause. While this may seem like a small distinction, it can make a big difference in your DUI case. For example, if the officer did not have probable cause to tell you to perform field sobriety exercises, we can ask the judge to exclude them, as well as your statements and even your breath test or refusal from trial.
This is why we apply a detailed approach to every DUI case – the small things matter. Part of our investigation and defense of your case will be a thorough examination of whether the police officer did and said the right things before you performed field sobriety exercises.