Alabama DUI: Field Sobriety Tests vs. Breathalyzers

Police agencies have numerous tools at their disposal when it comes to crime-fighting, with technology expanding at a seemingly exponential rate.

And yet, many continue to rely heavily on decades-old methods in the course of their drunk-driving arrests. Primarily, these include the field sobriety test and the breathalyzer.

They aren't mutually exclusive and, where possible, many officers will use both.

Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers know that it seemed for a time that these methods might be falling somewhat out of favor in exchange for blood testing, which is considered far more accurate.

However, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Missouri v. McNeely held that in most cases, officers have to first obtain a warrant from a judge in order to legally pull a sample. These means many more officers will simply fall back on the older methods.

They don't need a warrant, but your consent is necessary to perform either one. There is one major difference, though: There is no penalty for refusing to engage in field sobriety testing. However, Section 35-5-192(a) of the Alabama Code explains that motorists in this state are offering complied consent to chemical testing. So if you refuse a breathalyzer, you are violating this law, which subjects you to an automatic revocation of your driver's license for up to 90 days.

You can always request a hearing to have that decision reviewed.

Motorists have good reason for refusing to submit to either field sobriety tests or breathalyzers. If you can honestly say you aren't intoxicated, it's probably best to submit. However, if you believe there is any chance you won't pass either test, it's often better to take a pass.

The latter means you will likely be arrested for DUI, but you won't have provided the police with additional information to use against you in court.

A field sobriety test is one in which an officer conducts a series of tests that are supposed to determine whether you are intoxicated. These might include directives to walk heel-to-heel in a straight line, follow the movement of a handheld pen using only your eyes or reciting portions of the alphabet.

We believe these tests are inappropriate for a number of reasons, including the fact that failure could be an indicator of some other medical condition. Also, whether you “passed' the test relies heavily on the officer's perception of your performance. When results are so highly subjective, there is always the potential for testing flaws and biases.

Breathalyzers are certainly not without their flaws either. In fact, evidence of breathalyzer errors – almost always with the results skewed higher than what they should be – have resulted in the thousands of cases being thrown into limbo nationwide.

Just look at the District of Columbia, for example. An outside consultant hired in early 2010 found that the breathalyzer machines routinely used by police there were inflating results by as much as 20 percent. Some 400 people were convicted based on inaccurate results. Police were forced to stop using the devices for about three years, and dozens successfully sued the district.

Regardless of the evidence against you, an experienced DUI defense attorney will help you find a way to fight the charges.

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