The root of the problem is a case from 2009 where a defendant, David Bell, was charged with drunk driving. Surprisingly, his DUI charges came despite passing all six of the field sobriety tests administered by the arresting officer. The judge who first heard his case threw out his charges, saying that the police lacked the necessary probable cause to arrest Bell and that the blood test he was subjected to, which revealed he was indeed intoxicated (0.015 percent BAC), should also be thrown out.
The judge claimed that the results of the blood test were illegally obtained because there was never any basis to arrest Bell in the first place. The state appealed the decision and the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the lower court, saying that the state could not administer field sobriety tests and then simply disregard the results when it did not suit their interests.
The case now comes before the state’s Supreme Court after the attorney general asked for a resolution to the matter. The AG specifically asked the court to determine how much importance the field sobriety tests should have, particularly in cases where there is little if any other evidence that a driver is actually intoxicated.
For his part, Bell has said that the police had every right to pull him over. Bell admits to driving on the wrong side of the road, but said he only did so because he missed his turn and was trying to flip the car around. Bell said that while the officer absolutely had probable cause to question him, once he passed the field sobriety tests the officer’s right to detain him ceased to exist.
Bell’s attorneys have cleverly made the case that the prosecution and police should not be entitled to have their cake and eat it too. Police, on the one hand, have argued that field sobriety tests are excellent, reliable methods for detecting if a driver is under the influence. At the same time, when the tests indicate that a driver is not intoxicated, the police seem to think they should be able to ignore those results, and continue digging for evidence of impairment.
Though the case concerns Tennessee law, many defense attorneys in the region, including here in Mississippi, are watching the case given that it could impact how other states address similar issues. The hope is that the Supreme Court realizes that groundless police searches and seizures should never be permitted, even in cases where drunk driving is suspected.