Reasonable Suspicion is Required to Administer a Field Sobriety Test

Police officer doing a field sobriety test

If you are pulled over by a police officer in New Jersey, and the officer thinks that you have been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, one of the things he or she may ask that you do is perform a series of movements that make up a field sobriety test – including walking in a straight line, following a pen with your eyes, holding out your arms and touching your nose with one finger, or counting while standing on one foot. This may come before or in addition to a breathalyzer test if the officer believes you are intoxicated. If you are later charged with a DUI / DWI, your ability to perform the field sobriety test may be used as evidence in a case against you. There is no statutory penalty for refusing to perform a field sobriety test in New Jersey, but if you do refuse, a judge may consider your refusal to mean you were too drunk to do them.

Nonetheless, a police officer does not have an unlimited power to ask anyone and everyone to perform a field sobriety test. Numerous New Jersey court cases have said that a police officer may only ask you to perform a field sobriety test if he or she has a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that you are driving drunk or under the influence of some other substance. If the State cannot prove by a preponderance of evidence that the officer had this “reasonable and articulable suspicion” at the time the field sobriety test was performed, then your attorney may make a Motion to Suppress before the court to have the evidence excluded. This means that the prosecutor will not be allowed to use this evidence against you to prove the charges of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and can ultimately prevent the State from proving its case.

There is no specific definition of a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” under the law, but the standard is based on the police officer’s knowledge, experience, observations, and reasonable inferences. For example, a reasonable suspicion includes if the officer smells alcohol coming from the car or the driver’s breath, if the driver had bloodshot or watery eyes, or if the driver’s speech was slurred.

In the recent case of State v. Dunn, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that a driver’s statements regarding drinks she had had earlier in the day could create a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the driver was operating the vehicle while intoxicated, even if there were no other signs of DUI / DWI – no detectable odor of alcohol, slurred speech, or bloodshot eyes. In Dunn, the police officer did not ask the driver if she had been drinking, but she volunteered that she had had three beers earlier in the day. This was enough for the officer to ask the defendant to step out of the car, at which time he smelled the odor of alcohol.

It is important to note that a police officer must first have a legitimate reason to make a motor vehicle stop before pulling a driver over. Furthermore, if the reason the driver was pulled over was for a minor violation, like a traffic offense, the officer must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that is unrelated to the traffic offense before the officer can administer a field sobriety test to see if the driver was operating the vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

We know from Dunn, that if the driver admits to drinking at least three beers earlier in the day, reasonable, articulable suspicion is created for an officer to administer field sobriety testing.

But what if you admitted to having only one drink or two, would that rise to the same level? As a result of the Dunn decision, I would say yes, that any admission to drinking any amount of alcohol prior to operating a motor vehicle would probably create reasonable, articulable suspicion that the operator may be intoxicated and allow the officer to conduct field sobriety tests.

In New Jersey, the ambiguous nature of the law means that it is important to obtain an experienced drunk driving attorney in any situation where you or someone you know is charged with DUI / DWI. The facts of every case are different and can influence how the case is tried. An experienced DUI attorney will be best suited to present the best defense possible or have the charges against you dropped completely.

New Jersey Drunk Driving Attorney Edward M. Janzekovich Can Help Review the Evidence Against You in a DUI / DWI Case

A DUI / DWI charge for operating a motor vehicle will involve many complicated evidential issues. Such a charge can also result in severe penalties that affect you and your loved ones. If you are charged with drunk driving or driving under the influence of any substance in New Jersey, an experienced DWI / DUI attorney can make all the difference. To speak with an experienced New Jersey DWI lawyer about your situation, call us at 732-257-1137 or contact us online today. We serve clients throughout the State of New Jersey.