Thursday, May 15, 2014

The "Secret" Sobriety Tests

Most people are familiar with at least one or two of the three Standardized Field Sobriety Tests that law enforcement use to investigate suspected drunk drivers. These include the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test; Walk and Turn Test; and One Leg Stand.  However, what many people do not recognize is that officers begin testing and evaluating the driver even before those three "formal" tests are commenced.

The complete anatomy of a operating while intoxicated investigation starts with the person's driving behavior and ends with chemical testing at the station.  However, it is during the "personal contact" phase that law enforcement is most prone to exaggerate observations they make in support of their predetermined conclusion that a person is intoxicated.  The "personal contact" phase starts when the officer initially approaches the individual to discus the basis for the stop.  During this phase, the officer is trained to observe how the person reacts and interacts with him when asked various questions and simultaneously requesting multiple documentary items from the driver.  According the law enforcement's training, the following are just some of the observations an officer can make that are "consistent" with impairment:

    1.  Inability to produce two or more things requested simultaneously, i.e., license and registration;
    2.  Not immediately answering questions while searching for the requested documents;
    3.  "Unusual" answers or responses;
    4.  "Nervous" behavior.

Anyone who has been stopped by law enforcement, knows that any, if not all of those things can and often times are, a natural consequence to any motorist being stopped by law enforcement.  Nerves are much more likely to cause many of those behaviors than impairment by alcohol.  Indeed, the Iowa State Patrol has published a pamphlet entitled: "The Traffic Stop and You."  In that brochure it explains that nervousness is a natural emotion during a traffic stop.

The absurdity of law enforcement's training as it pertains to the "personal contact" phase is best demonstrated by the "meow" scene from the movie Super Troopers.  Applying law enforcement's training to that scene, that poor fellow could easily be painted as intoxicated.  He only produced his drivers license when asked to produce both license and registration; He does not immediately answer questions; Appears unsure and confused by the entire situation; and has a nervous mannerism of reaching up to his right ear.  Now, it certainly does not help that the officer threw in 9 "meows" during the interaction with one to end it, but that clip demonstrates how law enforcement has made a practice of turning completely normal behaviors into evidence of intoxication so long as they have any reason to believe the person has been drinking.

Looking at this from another side though, knowing what law enforcement is looking for and how they are trained to interpret their observations, can work int he favor of a driver.  Having license, registration and insurance ready to go; knowing that you will be "tested" even while sitting in the car; and understanding how the process and investigation works from law enforcements perspective can better equip you to conduct yourself in a manner where you are actually creating evidence of sobriety, even by law enforcement's own training.  This can be a powerful tool in defending any number of accusations that may come about as a result of a traffic stop.

Know your rights before you see lights.  Visit to download your free app explaining your legal rights when investigated by law enforcement.

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