Reasonable Suspicion Versus Beyond A Reasonable Doubt
In this article, you will learn…
- When a roadside test is enough to convict you of DWI.
- Why field sobriety tests aren’t scientifically valid.
- The difference between reasonable suspicion and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Is a Roadside Test Enough to Convict Me of a DWI?
A roadside test can be enough to convict you of a DWI if the performance is bad enough or if you make incriminating statements during the tests—statements like:
- “I can’t even do this sober.”
- “Oh, you got me. I’m drunk.”
- “I must still be feeling it.”
That last statement was one given by a former client who admitted imbibing hash oil, a form of cannabis, within two hours of driving. We had thoroughly discredited the state’s case except for that one little statement during a one-leg-stand field sobriety test. Often, little things like his nervous comment can get you convicted. But little things can get you acquitted, too. Every case is different but, more often than not, you can get a feeling how the case will go at the outset.
So-called “field sobriety tests” are designed to bring out signs of impairment. Walking heel-to-toe and standing on one leg are unnatural ways of walking and standing. Most people don’t do these tasks on a regular basis. For both the walk-and-turn and one-leg-stand tests, police have you narrow the area over which you’d normally distribute your weight. In the case of the one-leg-stand, you elevate your foot, raising your center of gravity. These things are designed to throw you off balance, regardless of whether you’re drunk or sober. The ways people compensate for that induced loss of balance are what cops call clues.
For walk-and-turn, the clues are:
- Starting the test before being told to.
- Stepping out of the initial heel-to-toe stance.
- Taking an incorrect number of steps.
- Stepping off the real or imaginary line.
- Stopping to steady yourself.
- Raising your arms more than six inches away from your body.
- Not touching heel-to-toe.
- Turning in any way other than as directed.
For one-leg-stand, the clues are:
- Raising your arms more than six inches away from your body.
- Putting your foot down.
Of course, this is how normal sober people who are not gymnasts or acrobats would naturally compensate for the imbalance induced by these abnormal ways of standing and walking. Even so, police officers count these behaviors as signs that a person is impaired by drugs or alcohol. They use these clues to persuade a judge that they have met the low thresholds of proof by either reasonable suspicion or probable cause to justify making you get out of your car or taking you into custody for the breath test. But at trial where the highest burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt applies, these alternative explanations for impairment are what we call reasonable doubt.
The legislature requires breath or blood tests to provide some objective evidence of impairment by alcohol and drugs while the evaluation of field sobriety tests is somewhat subjective, and police officers have a bias in favor of presuming guilt. That’s okay because we do want police officers to enforce the law. Their presumption of guilt, however, is why we have trials. Trials should neutralize that police bias favoring guilt because the judge should view the facts to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt rather than determining the presence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause. If there are reasonable alternative explanations for these observations other than alcohol or drug impairment, the judge should find the person not guilty.
Are Any of the Field Sobriety Tests Given in New Jersey During a DWI Investigation Scientifically Valid?
Scientific testing of field sobriety tests hasn’t really happened. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attempted to validate them, but there are fundamental flaws in those studies. But even if you go by their skewed way of analyzing test performance and effectiveness, they come up with percentages that correlate to a blood alcohol content in excess of the legal limit somewhere between 63 and 88 percent of the time. That leaves a lot of room for reasonable doubt.
Still, can field sobriety tests form a basis of guilt? Yes, because that assessment is up to the trier of fact. In New Jersey, the trier of fact is either a judge or a jury. Unless DWI is an element of the offense, such as a car crash resulting in injury or death, a judge is going to be the trier of fact in DWI cases. Judges tend to favor police officers in municipal court due to the politics of that court. These judges get a three-year term and are reappointed at the pleasure of whoever’s running the town at the time of reappointment. Cops don’t have any authority over the reappointment process, but they do have influence over it because they’re organized and typically will have access to the mayor or the council members. If a judge wanting to get reappointed finds too many people not guilty, the police officers may complain to those who do have authority over the reappointment process.
Unfortunately, that’s life right now in the municipal courts from a political standpoint. Nonetheless, the quality of the municipal court judiciary in New Jersey has improved substantially since I started practicing back in the 1980s. There were a lot of real hanging judges back then, and there are still a few today. But today, certain changes have reduced the effect of politics on the municipal court judiciary by reducing the influence of the local appointment process. The Administrative Office of the Courts emphasizes training municipal court judges. Also, the emergence of joint courts where the appointment process is taken away from the local town has also yielded improvements in the quality of the judging.
There are factors that tend to favor conviction, but we still rely on the basic constitutional principle that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Due to the preliminary nature of reasonable suspicion and probable cause which are raised in pretrial motions to suppress evidence, you will generally lose those motions. When you cover the same territory factually in a trial, however, it’s a different question and a different standard of proof. If it boils down to just observations and field sobriety tests, most judges will find reasonable doubt. Even with valid breath or blood tests, where prosecutors often make mistakes in establishing a foundation, a DWI charge is far from a lost cause.
With the guidance of a skilled attorney for DUI Law, you can have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that we’ll make it look easy. For more information on DUI Law in New Jersey, an initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (732) 218-9090 today.
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