The Tennessee Supreme Court decided on Thursday that the only use for roadside sobriety tests is to collect evidence against motorists, using them to convict individuals for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). The high court justices overturned an appellate decision from 2012 that found a driver who passed six of the tests with flying colors should never have been arrested. David D. Bell was arrested on May 13, 2009, even though the trial judge found no evidence of impairment in the sobriety tests when he reviewed the dashcam footage.
“I honestly think that he did pretty dog-gone good on the field sobriety tests, better than most I’ve seen,” Sevier County Circuit Court Judge Rex Henry Ogle observed. “I couldn’t pass them as well as he did.”
On that early morning in 2009, Bell had stopped by the The Roaming Gnome Pub and Eatery located in Sevierville and had a few drinks. He made a mistake and ended up on the wrong side of the road when Sevierville Police Officer Timothy Russell came upon him. On the roadside, Bell performed the four-finger count, recited the alphabet from G to S, and identified for Officer Russell in what year he turned six. Officer Russell rated his mental acuity as “excellent.” Bell also passed the one-leg stand and the walk-and-turn test.
Despite the performance, Officer Russell decided to arrest Bell. Bell moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that there was no probable cause for his warrantless arrest. Seeking a conviction, the Supreme Court justices looked to several other states for sympathetic rulings.
“We recognize that not all courts that have addressed this question have reached the same conclusion as the Delaware Supreme Court, the Alaska Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court,” Justice William C. Koch Jr wrote. “However, we have determined that the approach employed by these courts is entirely consistent with our holdings that determining the existence of probable cause to support a warrantless arrest is not a technical process. Rather, it is a process requiring reviewing courts to conduct a common-sense analysis of the facts and circumstances known to the officers at the time of arrest… we find that performance on field sobriety tests is but one of the many factors officers should consider when deciding whether to arrest a motorist for DUI or similar offenses without a warrant.”
The justices reasoned that under the totality of circumstances, passing the sobriety tests is insufficient to cancel out the effect of other indications of intoxication, including the smell of alcohol and a traffic violation. For this reason, the court reversed the lower court findings and agreed with prosecutors that Officer Russell had probable cause to arrest Bell for DUI and ordered the charges to be reinstated against him. The justices noted that Bell may use his performance on the sobriety tests to raise reasonable doubt of his guilt at trial.