When Can Police order Field Sobriety Tests in a Massachusetts OUI Arrest?

You were stopped for speeding after having consumed alcohol? Can a police officer order you to take field sobriety tests in Massachusetts. This Blog will explain under what circumstances field sobriety tests can be ordered and the type of legal motion a DUI Defense Lawyer can make to challenge the officer’s conduct.

Can Police Officer Request Field Tests Merely Because I consumed Alcohol?  

Police officers have the authority to conduct field sobriety tests if they reasonably suspect that the driver was operating his or her vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. This standard, known as the “reasonable suspicion” standard, is the lowest criminal standard used by courts, and its application to roadside sobriety tests makes drivers much more vulnerable to arrest.

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In the matter of Blaise v. Commonwealth, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that an officer does not necessarily need to have the same level of suspicion to order a sobriety test as he would to arrest a driver.  The standard an officer needs to justify an arrest is probable cause, while a lesser standard governs whether an officer can request that a motorist take a field sobriety test.

The primary distinction between the reasonable suspicion test used to constitutionally conduct a brief stop and frisk an individual (known as a “Terry stop”) and the probable cause test needed before a full search and seizure is in the level of evidence needed to satisfy each standard. If the standards were to be compared on a spectrum, reasonable suspicion would be on one end of the spectrum requiring minimal evidence, while the trial standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” would fall on the opposite end of the spectrum requiring a complete conviction that the defendant committed the offense. In between the two extremes would be the probable cause standard, used for searches and arrests.

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As explained by the SJC in Blaise, the probable cause standard is used in cases involving arrests and full searches because such cases pose a significant intrusion on the individual’s 4th Amendment right under the US Constitution and article 14 rights under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. In contrast, however, the SJC found that a field sobriety test does not imply a similar infringement on the driver’s privacy rights. Instead, the court ruled that a field sobriety test that follows a typical traffic stop is comparable to a brief detention of the driver while the officer checks his ID – in neither instance is the defendant’s privacy rights implicated.

In reaching this decision, the SJC expanded the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Terry v. Ohio, which permits officers to conduct a temporary stop and frisk of individuals if the officers have reason to suspect that the individuals pose a threat to public safety. The SJC in Blaise held that a field sobriety test is constitutionally permissible as long as it is reasonable under the circumstances to suspect that the driver may have been operating while under the influence.

In the case of Blaise, the officer initially pulled the defendant over for a traffic stop because the defendant was speeding and had one blown headlight. After stopping the defendant, the officer testified to having observed the defendant with glassy red eyes and slurred speech. The officer asked the defendant if he had any alcohol, and the defendant replied that he had a couple of beers.

Under these circumstances, the SJC ruled that it would be reasonable to suspect that the driver was in fact operating under the influence, and so the officer was justified in ordering the defendant to exit the vehicle for field sobriety tests.

Motions Challenging an Officer Decision to Order Field Sobriety Tests

To challenge an officer decision to order field sobriety tests, a defense attorney would file a motion to suppress, contesting the stop and the exit order. The attorney would argue that both the stop and exit order were unlawful, and that the officer unreasonably prolonged the duration of the stop in ordering field sobriety tests. While many times this motion will be denied, it is a useful step in trial preparation and one that I recommend in most cases.

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