In order for law enforcement to legally arrest someone, charge them with
DUI, and then have them take a chemical BAC test, officers must first
legally establish probable cause. Probable cause is a “reasonable
suspicion” that someone has committed a crime based on available
circumstantial evidence. In order to establish this standard, officers
use field sobriety tests, which are tasks that are designed to emphasize
signs of intoxication and thus establish probable cause.
In theory, field sobriety tests are impossible for someone who is legally
intoxicated to pass, while those who aren’t intoxicated can pass
them quite easily. Thus, officers then make an accurate arrest based on
the results. So reasonably, this means most people would expect and think
that field sobriety tests have been refined and standardized to ensure accuracy.
However, these theories don’t work out all that often in real-world
circumstances, and the truth about these tests shocks a lot of people:
despite years of refinement and testing, they’re still woefully
inaccurate and lead to all sorts of wrongful arrests and accusations.
These tests are difficult—even for sober people in a lot of cases,
because they force your brain to try and comprehend different types of
tasks that you wouldn’t otherwise have to do normally.
Dr. Spurgeon Cole of Clemson University performed a study in which he showed
trained police officers video of people taking approved field sobriety
tests that were conducted properly. He then asked the officers to identify
how many people they believed were actually intoxicated. Officers on average
found that a little under half of the people were intoxicated. Only there
was one problem: the truth is
none of the people in the videos were intoxicated. They were all completely
sober, and yet officers still failed and found them to be inebriated nearly
half of the time. At that point you’re almost better off flipping a coin
than you would be trusting an officer’s judgement!
The prevailing theory for this is that officers tend to wildly overestimate
someone’s intoxication level. Human nature is prone to bias, and
in many cases officers are biased toward finding someone who is drunk,
arresting them, and getting them off the road. Unfortunately, this leads
to a lot of people being falsely arrested and forced to take a chemical
test when they aren’t even over the legal BAC limit, and thus no
crime has ever occurred!
When field sobriety tests were first standardized after a thorough study
back in the 1970s, the Southern California Research Institute admitted
that the tests they used were hardly accurate and were wrong nearly half
of the time. By the 1980s, they had obtained some better data—a
success rate of around 70 percent. Today, that number is up as high as
91 percent, but the truth of the matter is even
this is misleading. Some deeper dives into these numbers have shown that in
getting the 91 percent number, subjects in these tests included people
who were so far over the limit that the results of their field sobriety
test didn’t matter: anyone could have known they were drunk. Likewise,
when officers were asked to estimate a subject’s BAC for this test,
they were allowed to take
breathalyzer results into consideration. In other words, they were asked to take a test and then given an answer
sheet to complete it!
What This Means for You
So what does that mean for you? As a citizen, if you’re questioned
by an officer and they ask you to take a field sobriety test, you are
allowed to decline. Since you have not been placed under arrest, you are
not required to submit to a chemical test, and officers are not allowed
to require you to submit to a sobriety test. Officers may still choose
to arrest you, but the truth is that if they arrest you and you are not
above the limit, they could get in big trouble in a hurry for falsely