Excluding Field Sobriety and Breathalyzer Tests in a DUI Case

Every day there are drivers faced with the anxious moments of seeing flashing red lights in one’s rearview mirror with the knowledge that the driver has been drinking. Many of those pulled over for DUI assume that it is inevitable they will be arrested and subsequently convicted. What drivers do not realize is that a DUI arrest does not mean that a person will be convicted because there are many defenses that can lead to a reduction or dismissal of DUI charges.

When you are stopped for DUI, it can be a frightening experience. Many people assume that once the arresting officer indicates that you have failed field sobriety tests or a breathalyzer test by registering a blood alcohol level of 0.8, a conviction for DUI is inevitable. The consequences of such a conviction can be overwhelming, yet many accused of DUI have no idea that those tests may never be admitted as evidence in their case.

Search and Seizure

The fourth amendment of the Bill of Rights protects us as citizens from unreasonable search and seizure by the government. The police as agents of the government are limited by the fourth amendment and must have “probable cause” that you committed a specific violation of law to stop your vehicle. An officer who observes the tags on your vehicle is expired or determines you’re speeding by following you are common examples of “probable cause.”

Reasonable Suspicion

An officer may also detain you briefly and investigate further if he has “reasonable suspicion” based on specific facts known to him that you are or have violated the law. For example, the officer observes you suddenly turn into a parking lot when he appears behind you, and you seem to be looking to see who is following you. You then quickly park in an obstructed spot behind an empty abandoned building. While this may constitute “reasonable suspicion” to stop your vehicle, an officer cannot stop you merely because he has a “feeling” or a “hunch.”

If an officer stops you for a faulty taillight, for example, the initial stop may be legal, but a faulty taillight gives no basis for “reasonable suspicion” that a driver is driving under the influence of alcohol. If the officer does not observe obvious signs of alcohol, such as the smell of alcohol on the driver’s breath; bloodshot or watery eyes; slurred speech; or the like, the officer may not have a basis to conduct field sobriety tests. The driver should also avoid making incriminating statements like admitting to drinking to avoid providing the officer with a legitimate basis to conduct field sobriety testing.

An officer must have either probable cause or reasonable suspicion to lawfully stop you. If the officer does not have either, any evidence he obtains after the stop may be excluded from your court case under the so-called “exclusionary rule.” Basically, this rule says all evidence that is obtained illegally is tainted as the “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

Illegal Stops

If the officer were to conduct the field sobriety tests anyway, a qualified DUI attorney may be able to file a motion to suppress the field sobriety test results and any subsequently discovered evidence. If the officer lacked probable cause for the sobriety testing any subsequently discovered evidence might be excluded based on the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. This doctrine basically says that any evidence obtained as a result of prior discovered evidence that was obtained illegally is also deemed to be illegally obtained and excluded from the case.

For example, a police officer may engage in an illegal stop if he pulls you over merely because you look like “the type who is habitually drunk.” After pulling you over, he smells alcohol on your breath and sees empty beer cans in your car that fall to the ground as you open the door. He then watches as you stumble and fall getting out of the car. You subsequently fail a field sobriety test, and a breathalyzer shows your blood alcohol is 0.24, three times the level that the law considers a driver impaired. Because the officer did not have a valid basis for the initial stop, all of the rest of the evidence that was discovered after the stop may be excluded and the case dismissed.

There may be another way your DUI lawyer may use the exclusionary rule in your case. There are very specific rules and regulations under DUI laws that require the use of certain approved, certified, and calibrated breathalyzer machines. Many state legislatures have extended the protection of the exclusionary rule to protections adopted under state law. If the police cannot show that the breathalyzer has been calibrated correctly, the judge could apply the exclusionary rule so that the results cannot be used at trial.

In a case where you have made damaging admissions after being confronted with the results of the breathalyzer test, your DUI lawyer may even try to have your damaging admissions excluded as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” A DUI attorney points out, “Many people assume that once they have failed field sobriety and/or breathalyzer test, their DUI conviction is pretty much a foregone conclusion. This is simply not the case. A good DUI attorney may be able to ensure that those tests are never introduced as evidence in their client’s DUI case.”

Defending A DUI Based on Traffic Stop

An experienced DUI attorney may also show that even if the field sobriety and breathalyzer test results are not excluded that they are unreliable. Officers have very strict guidelines for conducting and scoring field sobriety tests. A DUI lawyer can reveal to a jury that the officer did not follow the appropriate procedures or was biased in how he evaluated a driver’s performance. An experienced DUI lawyer will also communicate to a jury the unnatural nature of the tasks performed and the high rate of drivers failing the test who do not have a blood alcohol level exceeding the legal limit of .08 under Florida DUI law.

A lawyer may also challenge the validity of breathalyzer results based on the machine not functioning properly or the timing of the test. In the final analysis, there are many bases for challenging a DUI stop and arrest so if a person is stopped or arrested for DUI, he or she should seek a qualified DUI lawyer because an arrest is not the same thing as a conviction.