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Washington Supreme Court Holds Refusal of Field Sobriety Tests Can Be Introduced as Evidence of Defendant’s Guilt

The Washington Supreme Court recently held in Washington v. Mecham that the Fourth Amendment does not authorize a defendant to refuse a roadside sobriety test. In a divided opinion, the state high court held that a police officer may stop any motorist he believes to be inebriated and ask him to perform roadside tests such as standing on one leg, the “stop and turn,” and the horizontal gaze nystagmus, which tests eye movement. If the driver refuses, the district attorney is permitted to tell the jury that his refusal is proof of his guilt.

Defendant Mark Mecham would not take the allegedly “voluntary” field sobriety tests after being pulled over in Bellevue, Washington in May 2011. The officer did not think Mecham was driving while intoxicated. Instead, he stopped Mecham because he was driving with an outstanding warrant, which the officer learned after looking up his license plate number. After stopping the defendant, however, Officer Campbell observed signs of Mecham’s inebriation and found a beer can in the vehicle. Officer Campbell then took Mecham to the police station, and Mecham refused a breath test.

Law enforcement obtained a search warrant from a magistrate for a blood sample. Mecham was found to have a BAC of .05, which is below the legal level of .08. At trial, an expert testified that Mecham’s BAC was likely .06 when he was pulled over, but it might “possibly” have been .08. The state introduced Mecham’s refusal to take the roadside sobriety tests to prove his guilt. Mecham was convicted of DUI.

While other courts have focused on the shaky reliability of field sobriety tests — particularly the eye movement test — in considering similar cases, the Washington Supreme Court focused on whether Mecham had a Fourth Amendment right to refuse the tests. Five justices held that the roadside tests do not constitute roadside “searches” despite Mecham’s argument to the contrary. Since the field sobriety tests do not implicate the Fourth Amendment, the court held, there is no right to refuse them.

The court reasoned that field sobriety tests only reveal some physical signs associated with intoxication, most of which could be revealed from mere observation. The court concluded that since Mecham’s refusal was not the exercise of a Fourth Amendment right, the trial court did not err in allowing the prosecutor to introduce evidence of his refusal of the field sobriety tests at trial. What’s more, the prosecutor could properly comment on that refusal during closing.

In a dissenting opinion, one justice faulted the majority for muddling the issue. The dissent stressed that at its core, the case concerns a citizen’s right to make an autonomous choice. The only conclusion to be logically gleaned from this choice, he argued, is that a decision was made. It should not have evidentiary relevance.

Beyond the state high court’s holding that a field sobriety test does not constitute a Fourth Amendment search, more troubling for DUI defendants is the holding that the state may lawfully introduce the defendant’s refusal of the tests as evidence of guilt.

If you have been charged with a DUI offense in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation to people in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses and representing drivers with revoked licenses before the Illinois Secretary of State. To learn more, and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 217.525.0520.

More Blog Posts:

Supreme Court Holds Fourth Amendment Permits Warrantless Breath Tests, But Not Warrantless Blood Tests, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, July 1, 2016.

Illinois Appeals Court Upholds DUI Defendant’s Summary Suspension Despite Hearing Delay, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, June 2, 2016.

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Officer’s Assertion of Lawful Authority to Search Does Not Negate Totality of the Circumstances Test, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, May 7, 2016.

New Mexico Governor Announces Program to Monitor DUI Cases, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, May 2, 2016.

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