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Michigan DUI Cases and Improperly Administered Field Sobriety Tests

Jan 2nd, 2017 DUI Defense DUI Stops Michigan DUI Cases and Improperly Administered Field Sobriety Tests

The lawyers at the Barone Defense Firm are regularly astonished by how infrequently police officers actually bother to follow their advanced training when making DUI arrests.  In virtually every case we can find mistakes, and we can sometimes leverage and use these failures to obtain great results for our clients.

An example of when a failure to follow training is particularly important is in the administration of the standardized field sobriety tests (SFST).  These include the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), the One Leg Stand (OLS), and the Walk and Turn (WAT).  Almost three decades of trial practice has shown that Michigan’s police officers almost always make mistakes when administering the SFSTs to people they arrest for drunk driving.  This is true even of officers with a great deal of advanced training in the proper administration of these tests often fail to administer them correctly.

And the problem is not limited only to Michigan. It’s common in other states as well.  A great case that demonstrates this is State v. Browning, 458 S.W.3d 418 (Missouri App. 2016).  Here the defendant was stopped for several lane violations and for speeding.  The defendant submitted to SFSTs and the officer reported six clues on the HGN, four clues on the WAT and four clues on the OLS.  He was arrested and a breath test suggested a BAC of .103.  The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court improperly admitted the HGN test over his objection.

The same issue was raised pretrial, and at the hearing, the officer testified that he had been an officer for eighteen years and during this completed the SFST course through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”). The officer also completed the following training: advanced DWI detection in 1996; drug recognition expert “preschool” and drug recognition expert school, both in 2004; drug recognition expert recertification in 2005; drug expert recertification in March 2007. Then, after the subject arrest and shortly before the hearing on the motion to suppress, in 2008, the officer completed another recertification.

The court of appeals indicates in their opinion, that despite “of attending all of this training, it became clear throughout his testimony that the officer had very little grasp of the proper way to administer and score the field sobriety tests.”  In the opinion, the court sets forth, in detail, the requirements for a proper administration of the SFSTs.  The opinion also indicates that the arresting officer indicated in his testimony “that he understood that if any element of the standardized field sobriety test is changed, the validity of results is compromised. However, he acknowledged at the suppression hearing that he had never bothered to even read the NHTSA manual, which was admitted into evidence and which was the source of his training.”  The court ruled that proper administration of the HGN is a foundational requirement for admission of test results.

A court hearing is not always necessary to show that a police officer has failed to follow his or her training.  A trained eye can observe mistakes while watching the video recording from a police officer’s patrol vehicle.  Such mistakes can make a big difference in the outcome of a drunk driving case.