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Assessing a DUI suspect starts with the eyes, progresses to the breath

On Behalf of | May 2, 2014 | Alcohol Testing, Blog, Cops, Field Sobriety Tests

Glenn Osmundson/The Providence JournalDUI suspect George F. Daniels Jr., 47, of Providence, takes a preliminary breath test after being stopped by Providence police on suspicion on DUI on April 11.

After pulling over a motorist, a police officer questions the suspect and then administers a Standardized Field Sobriety Test.

It is an assessment of a suspect’s mental and motor skills that consists of three familiar exercises: the tongue-twisting horizontal gaze nystagmus (inability to track), in which the suspect’s eye movements are checked by waving a finger or pen back and forth and up and down; the heel-to-toe walk and turn; and the one-leg stand.

Clues are taken from each of the exercises to conclude whether there is sufficient evidence of impairment to establish the probable cause necessary to continue to detain and evaluate the individual, explained Richard T. Sullivan, a former Providence police chief who, as state law enforcement highway safety training coordinator, teaches officers at the Rhode Island Municipal Police Training Academy.

With the one-leg stand, for example, if the suspect is swaying and hopping, failing to keep the leg up and holding his arms out for balance, he fails that element of the test. The field sobriety test is applicable whether someone is suffering impairment from alcohol or another kind of drug, although there are additional telltale signs of nonalcohol impairment that an officer certified as a drug recognition expert would look for, according to Sullivan.

If an officer has a preliminary breath tester, he uses that next. It is a battery-operated instrument resembling an early-generation cellphone used to check for the presence of alcohol. The device also can be held over a cup to determine if the cup contains alcohol.

The preliminary breath tester is solely for a quick check and its readout is admissible in court only to establish probable cause, not as proof that a suspect has a blood alcohol content in excess of the legal limit: .08 percent.

It is timely, then, to read the suspect a customized Miranda warning for a DUI arrest and take the suspect to headquarters for a conclusive chemical test of his breath and/or blood. A suspect has the right to refuse to cooperate with the field sobriety test and the preliminary breath test, but that does not mean he is free to go.

At headquarters, a suspect is shown a lengthy rights form and asked to consent to a chemical test of breath and/or blood. If it is refused, the suspect typically is charged with the noncriminal offense of refusing a test. Repeat offenses are crimes.

If there has been an accident with a serious injury or death, the police may obtain a search warrant for permission to draw blood for testing from the suspect.

In the rights forms read aloud at the scene and at headquarters, the suspect is told that he has the right – at his own expense – to be examined by his own physician and to have his own physician or some other person of his choosing administer a chemical test separately from the police. Sullivan said he has not heard of the latter right – to an independent breath or blood test – ever having been invoked.