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TN Supreme Court: Field Sobriety Test Results May Not Matter

One of the things police and prosecutors like to hang their hats on when pressing claims of driving under the influence is if a suspect fails to pass a field sobriety test. As we have noted often in this blog, a lot of circumstances can bring the validity of field sobriety tests into question. Because of that, challenging the results of those tests have been known to be effective in presenting a defense against the charges.

Whether or not that can continue may itself be in question in the wake of a decision recently by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The justices unanimously ruled that DUI charges could be reinstated against a Sevier County man, even though he had submitted to and passed six sobriety tests conducted in the field. They said the preponderance of other possible evidence was strong enough to allow police to have had probable cause to make the warrantless arrest in his case.

Many legal observers will likely agree that the decision makes it easier for authorities to pursue their investigations of drunk driving.

The case in question stemmed from a traffic stop in 2009. Officers claimed to have witnessed the suspect driving on the wrong side of the street. After stopping him, they conducted standard field sobriety tests and he passed them all. He was arrested anyway. Police said he smelled of alcohol and had admitted to drinking too much.

Three lower courts ruled that because the driver had done well on the tests, police lacked probable cause to arrest him. Later blood tests reportedly showed he was legally over the limit. One judge said the infraction for which the driver was originally stopped was one others had committed. He said road construction in the area had made driving conditions confusing.

The Supreme Court said police had acted within their authority because of the alleged errant driving, the apparent smell of alcohol, and the driver's alleged post-stop admission of drinking.

Source: The Tennessean, "TN Supreme Court upholds DUI arrest," Sheila Burke, Associated Press, Feb. 22, 2014