Field Sobriety Tests in Tennessee Go Under the Microscope


A recent case working its way through the court system in Tennessee got some national attention given the important impact the decision might have. The highest court in Tennessee has agreed to hear a case, State of Tennessee v. David Dwayne Bell, concerning the weight that should be given to the performance on field sobriety tests by a driver, especially those that indicate sobriety.

The roots of the important decision go back to 2009 when David Bell was arrested for drunk driving in East Tennessee despite having passed a battery of field sobriety tests with flying colors.

Bell was spotted late one night driving on the wrong side of the road, something he said he did because of nearby road construction which caused him to miss his turn. The officer pulled Bell over and administered a series of six standard field sobriety tests. Bell passed each one. Despite this, Bell’s admission that he had indeed consumed a beer that evening was enough to have the officer arrest him and take him to have a blood test done to officially determine his BAC. The test results showed that Bell was indeed legally intoxicated, with a BAC of 0.15. The issue that has been successfully raised by Bell was whether the officer had the necessary probable cause to place Bell under arrest in the first place.

The first person to hear the case, a county judge, refused to admit the blood test results as evidence in the case against Bell. The judge said that the tests results were an illegally obtained byproduct of an unlawful arrest. The case was then appealed by prosecutors to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which fully supported the lower court’s decision to throw out the blood test. The Court of Criminal Appeals succinctly laid out the government’s problem by stating that if the government chooses to administer such tests, it does not then have the right to randomly disregard the results whenever it so chooses.

Bell has maintained from the very beginning that the arresting officer had the right to pull him over and administer the field sobriety tests. Bell’s drive down the wrong side of the road was enough to lead a reasonable person to suspect that alcohol might be involved. However, Bell’s attorney says that the moment his client performed the tests flawlessly, the officer’s power to pursue Bell evaporated.

The argument by Bell, and which two courts have thus far found convincing, is that the government ought not be permitted to ignore field sobriety tests when they indicate that a driver is sober, but then trot them out as irrefutable evidence of intoxication when the driver fails the tests. Police have long maintained the tests are reliable ways of demonstrating impairment, which then makes it untenable to simply ignore the results in other situations.

The question before the Tennessee Supreme Court is how much weight should be given to field sobriety tests. If the tests are indeed reliable indicators of intoxication, then what is to happen when the tests may indicate a driver is sober? Should police be permitted to ignore information that indicates a driver’s innocence and continue probing until incriminating evidence is found? We will have to wait a few more months to hear what Tennessee’s highest court decides.

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