Passing Field Sobriety Tests May Not Matter: Tennessee Court

By SHEILA BURKE | February 26, 2014

Police may still have grounds to arrest people for DUI even if they pass field sobriety tests, the Tennessee Supreme Court said in a ruling announced Friday.

The decision involved a Sevier County man whose DUI charges were thrown out after he passed six field sobriety tests.

The unanimous opinion reinstates the charges against David Dwayne Bell and his attorney said the case will be heard at a trial.

“Mr. Bell looks forward to his day in court before a jury of his peers,” attorney Bryan Delius said. He said jurors would be able to see how well Bell did on the tests.

Police stopped Bell in 2009 for driving on the wrong side of the road. He was arrested even though he passed the tests after police said he smelled like alcohol and admitted that he had been drinking. Some of the tests required Bell to stand on one leg while counting to 30, identify the year he had his 5th, 6th and 7th birthdays and say the alphabet from letters G through S.

Three lower counts had ruled that police lacked probable cause to arrest Bell because he had performed so well on the tests.

Sevier County Circuit Court Judge Rex Henry Ogle said that even though Bell was stopped for a serious driving infraction, several people had also driven on the wrong side of that road because they were confused because of construction.

He said police lacked probable cause to arrest Bell because the defendant passed his field sobriety tests. He found that Bell’s arrest was unlawful so the results of a blood test showing him to be legally drunk were not allowed in the case. The blood test showed that Bell had 0.15 percent blood alcohol – nearly twice the legal limit to drive – the Sevier County Circuit Court Clerk’s office has said.

The Supreme Court’s opinion noted that when police asked Bell how much he’d been drinking he responded by saying, “More than I should have, I know. I’m not fighting that.” That admission, along with the accusations that Bell had smelled of alcohol and was driving at night on the wrong side of the road, were more than enough to give police probable cause to make a warrantless arrest for DUI, the Supreme Court found.

Police have to make a common-sense analysis of the facts to see if a reasonable person might believe there is evidence that a crime has been committed, the opinion said.

“Accordingly, we find that performance on field sobriety tests is but one of the many factors officers should consider when deciding whether to arrest a motorist for DUI or similar offenses without a warrant,” Justice William C. Koch Jr. wrote in the opinion.

One defense attorney not involved in the case says that the opinion is going to make it easier for police to investigate people for DUI.

“Just the smell of alcohol and the admission of drinking is enough to allow a police officer to further this investigation,” Nashville criminal defense attorney Rob McKinney said.

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