When confronting DUI charges, many defendants may feel lost and overwhelmed, especially when considering the field sobriety tests typically conducted by the police. For many, these tests are perceived as designed to make them fail, further contributing to their legal complications. As a defense attorney for drunk driving cases in the 60th District Court of Muskegon County, I aim to provide a fresh perspective on these tests and their role in the courtroom.
The Misconception of Field Sobriety Tests
In an ideal scenario, defendants would decline any field sobriety tests, as the police can invariably identify errors, potentially indicating intoxication. Whether a test is performed too quickly, slowly, or with slight deviations from the instructions, these small mistakes could contribute to a perceived failure of the test.
The prosecution commonly relies on the "totality of the circumstances" argument, insinuating that any error performing these tests signifies intoxication. As defense attorneys, it's crucial to emphasize the positive test results and challenge the prosecution's inference of intoxication.
Michigan's Discrepancies in Sobriety Tests
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) approves only three field sobriety tests, urging officers to stick solely to these tests. However, Michigan police officers often deviate from this guideline. It's common for officers to request defendants to sing the alphabet, count backward, or estimate time. These tests are improper according to the NHTSA manual and should not be used in Michigan.
In such instances, the defense must hold the officer accountable for not following the rules and attempting to catch the defendant off-guard by playing outside of the rules. If an officer fails to adhere to the protocol they were trained on, it's fair to question what other procedures they may have neglected.
The Three Approved Sobriety Tests
The three tests sanctioned by the NHSTA manual include the Walk and Turn Test, One-legged Stand, and Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus.
Walk and Turn Test: This test requires defendants to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line and then turn. This test is notably easy to fail, and many sober individuals can struggle to fully comply with its requirements. However, failing this test does not definitively indicate intoxication, and defense attorneys should scrutinize the results during cross-examination.
One-legged Stand: The defendant must stand with one leg raised about six inches off the ground for approximately 30 seconds. This test is not suitable for individuals with certain physical conditions or of specific age groups, making the results unreliable and worthy of thorough examination.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: This test checks for involuntary eye jerking, supposedly indicative of alcohol in the system. This subjective test relies on the arresting officer's minimal training and can produce unreliable results.
The Preliminary Breath Test (PBT)
Along with field sobriety tests, the Preliminary Breath Test (PBT) plays a significant role in DUI charges. The PBT is typically the first BAC reading in a drunk driving case and is used by officers to justify their arrest. The decision to take or decline the test lies with the defendant, and there are often misunderstandings about the consequences of refusal.
Taking the test can often harm the defendant's case, particularly if they blow over the limit. Without the test, the officer has to depend on their subjective observations, and if the defendant declines field sobriety tests, the officer has to justify their arrest based on potentially insubstantial evidence.
However, it's important to note that PBT results are generally not admissible in court with limited exceptions. Therefore, it's crucial to consider if the PBT results would benefit the case or if they should be excluded. The primary goal is to use these results strategically and to your advantage.
Navigating the complexities of DUI charges in the 60th District Court of Muskegon County can be daunting, but understanding the role and implications of sobriety tests can significantly bolster a defendant's defense strategy. It is crucial for defendants and their attorneys to challenge the results of these tests, hold officers accountable for not following their own rules, and ensure that their rights are upheld in the courtroom.
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