Criminal defense attorneys generally agree the so-called “Standard Field Sobriety Test”(SFST) is a classic of “voodoo psycho-physio-pseudo-science.” Therefore, although it was developed as a means of insuring high conviction rates, the SFST has become a powerful tool for winning acquittals in Massachusetts drunk driving cases.
The SFST almost always emerges as the weakest link in the prosecution’s case. Therefore, experienced Mass. DUI attorneys and their investigators examine every detail of officers’ test administration and every nuance in their interpretation of the forensic psychology behind the SFST. Because the standard sequence of cognitive, vision, and balance exercises provides the critical link between officers’ stop-and-search and their administration of blood alcohol tests, when the defense discredits the field sobriety test, the prosecution’s case falls apart.
Standard Field Sobriety Testing
The NationalHighwayTrafficSafetyAdministration explains, “The Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) is a battery of three tests administered and evaluated in a standardized manner to obtain validated indicators of impairment and establish probable cause for arrest.” Specifically, the test requires Mass. Drunk driving suspects, to track a moving flashlight through their field of vision, so that officers can assess the accuracy of their peripheral vision. Then, they must walk a straight line, execute a 180-degree turn, and walk another straight line as if they were on a tightrope. Finally, they must balance, flamingo-style, on one leg. In some jurisdictions, officers first will ask suspects to recite the alphabet or count backwards from 100 to assess their cognitive impairment.
Problems with probable cause in Massachusetts DUI Investigations
If officers have no probable cause for stopping a motorist, then the results of their interrogation and testing are inadmissible at trial.
Massachusetts OUI attorneys routinely contest officers’ allegations of probable cause for stopping motorists: An average-sized driver who has consumed slightly more than one drink per hour typically will test at between .050 and .079 blood-alcohol content—in other words right on the threshold of legal drunkenness but not over the limit. In that condition, drivers will make minor driving mistakes—swerving, awkward turns, speed variations, and clumsy stops. Officers must make the case for probable cause on more substantial grounds.
Among DUI defense attorneys’ “greatest hits,” the assertion, “It is not illegal to swerve,” tops list because it sets the bar for probable cause. In order to stop and interrogate a motorist suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances, a police officer must establish sufficient grounds for the stop; and they often claim, “The motorist was swerving erratically in his lane.” Naturally, erratic swerving poses a problem, but if the driver does not cross the lane markers, he has done nothing illegal. Moreover, swerving does not automatically and infallibly indicate impairment, because faulty wheel alignment, slippery pavement, or road debris may prompt swerving just as easily as intoxication. Similar problems arise with allegations of excessive speed or driving too slowly, both of which may indicate intoxication, but may also be perfectly consistent with “the basic speed law,” the legal mandate for judging speed according to road conditions. By that standard, a motorist traveling a wide open country road at noon on a sunny day lawfully could exceed the posted speed limit by thirty or forty miles per hour; and another motorist traveling a crowded LA freeway in a blinding rain legally could—and should–defy the posted minimum speed.
Interpretations SFST results are notoriously unreliable
If the results of the SFST are thrown-out, then everything that follows from them becomes inadmissible—“fruits of the poisonous tree.” Because police officers very subjectively evaluate suspects’ performance on SFSTs, skilled DUI defense attorneys often impeach test results. Even more importantly, video evidence from dashboard cameras often serves as the defense’s most powerful exhibit.
Common sense suggests Massachusetts Field Sobriety Tests accurately measure DUI suspects’ natural coordination but say very little about their intoxication. “Crying Wolf,” Dr. Greg Kane’s landmark study of SFST results, dramatically confirms common sense. After aggressively drilling down on arrest and conviction statistics, Dr. Kanereports, alarmingly, “The science proves SFSTs do not work. The science proves that if juries rely on the SFST to decide the guilt of drivers charged with DWAI at the current…level, they will wrongly convict ninety-three percent of the innocent drivers who go to trial.”
Visual tracking poses exceptional difficulty for arresting officers—especially because myriad eye problems completely unrelated to alcohol affect people’s peripheral vision. Whereas testing proves that people with blood alcohol concentrations above .08 will track erratically, it does not prove the converse. Approximately half of perfectly sober people will show similar tracking problems from the tests’ requirement they tilt their heads back and angle their eyes toward their foreheads. Similarly, balance tests reveal very little about sobriety. Many experimental subjects with blood alcohol levels well above the legal limit could balance on one leg indefinitely; not surprisingly, athletes did well in these tests because they develop sophisticated command of their muscles. People with clinical depression, on the other hand, could not balance on one leg even when they were stone-cold sober. Researchers also stressed people taking prescription medications miserably failed the balance tests.
In one classic demonstration, a defense attorney noted the arresting officer had tripped as he ascended the witness stand, and he suggested the trip gave probable cause for a quick courtroom exercise. The officer arrogantly assented to the test, and he did easily pass the eye exam. However, because he was considerably overweight, he experienced tremendous difficulty walking a straight line and turning. Because he still wore his holster and gun, he could not stand on one foot for more than two seconds. “Shall we measure your blood alcohol, officer?” the defense attorney inquired.
Retain an experienced MA DUI attorney
If you face DUI charges, retain an experienced criminal attorney with special command of the NHTSA guidelines and the flaws in SFST administration and interpretation. Whether he or she wins a dismissal, earns an acquittal, or negotiates an equitable plea agreement, your attorney’s zealous advocacy will save you not only thousands of dollars but also your reputation, your license, and your opportunities for career advancement.