FAQs About Field Sobriety Tests & “Beyond Reasonable Doubt”
What Are The Standard Field Sobriety Tests?
There are a series of tests called Standardized Field Sobriety Tests that were developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They include something called the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test where they have a person follow a finger or pen with their eyes back and forth in front of their face. There is another test called the Walk and Turn, which involves having a person stand heel to toe and walk heel to toe.
Finally, there is something called a One Leg Stand. A person raises their foot off the ground, keeps their hand at their sides and tries to keep their foot up for thirty seconds. The police officers use other tests such as reciting the alphabet or counting backwards as Pre-exit tests to justify getting the person out of the car.
Most people who do balance tests end up getting arrested because balance tests, by their very nature, induce impairment. Officers are trained to attribute any sign of impairment to alcohol. However, there are many sources of impairment such as being nervous, tired or distracted. Maybe a person has an old injury or other condition that prevents them from performing these abnormal, unusual tasks. For the most part, these tasks require a person to reduce the area over which they would normally distribute their weight in the case of One Leg Stand to even raise the center of gravity. It will cause even a normal sober person to displace some impairment in their balance because it is just normal for a person to compensate for that by the very same clues. That is what the officers call them, meaning anybody would use to not fall over, things like stepping to the side, raising their arms or putting their foot down etc.
What Does “Prove Beyond A Reasonable Doubt” Mean?
Once you get past the probable cause part, then the state has to prove the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. These elements are pretty straightforward. The first one is operation of a motor vehicle. That can be established by direct observation by the officer or some other witness. That is the typical way most DWIs begin. It can even be established by a person’s admission to driving. That is common in cases where there are accidents and people are outside of the car when the cops arrive, or it could be established by circumstantial evidence. The most common situation being when someone is on a limited access highway where the only way they could have gotten there is by driving, although there are other situations that come up from time to time.
The other element that the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt is the element of intoxication. That can be proven by using the same observations that the police used to establish probable cause. However, the thing to keep in mind is that at the trial, it is a different question than the probable cause question. The probable cause question was, “Do we have enough to justify continue our investigation?” However, the question at trial is, “Is this person under the influence of alcohol beyond a reasonable doubt?” to the extent that those alternative explanations for impairment still exist. At the end of the trial, that is what is called reasonable doubt. That is why the state laws and the police put such great emphasis on breath testing, while balance testing and other observational evidence require some kind of a subjective determination by the police officer. Similarly, the breath test use is something more objective.
Breath is used as an indirect way of measuring a person’s blood alcohol content because in New Jersey, the offense is also defined in terms of blood alcohol content. One of the things attorneys have to look at is whether the person giving the breath test is certified to do so, whether the equipment that is used is operating properly, and whether the test was administered according to accepted procedures. Those things have to be established by clear and convincing evidence which the law defines as evidence as clear, direct and weighty as to cause the finder of fact to come to a determination on the issue in question without hesitation.
The common areas found in terms of breath testing are to observe a person continuously for at least twenty minutes before they blow into the machine. The purpose of that so called twenty minute observation period is to make sure that the person does not burp, belch, regurgitate or ingest anything that might cause contamination of the breath sample. The other purpose is to permit any alcohol that might be in the person’s mouth to dissipate so that the breath sample comes in as cleanly as possible. However, the assumption of course is that the entire vapor coming into that machine is coming from the person’s lungs.
That would cause the attorney to inquire about things like whether a person has Gastroesophageal reflux disease, a hiatal hernia, or other gastrointestinal issues that might cause vapor to come from places like the stomach. They also want to know about respiratory conditions that might impede the flow of breath, and they want to know about things like dentures, braces or invisalign, tongue studs, lip rings, gum, chewing tobacco, or anything that might be in the mouth that would retain alcohol for a period longer than twenty minutes. All of those things can cause contamination of the sample and render it unreliable and hopefully from a defense perspective, inadmissible.
Get Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Field Sobriety Tests and “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” or call the law office of New Jersey DWI Attorney John Menzel, J.D. for an Initial Consultation at (732) 218-9090 and get the information and legal answers you’re seeking.
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