March 2011

"Field Sobriety Tests in Rhode Island - Proof of Intoxication"

Traditionally, the Rhode Island police departments have requested persons suspected of intoxication to perform certain physical tests, and inability to adequately perform was considered to corroborate their conclusion of intoxication based on objective signs. Perhaps the oldest and best known test for intoxication was the request to walk a straight line. However, while an intoxicated person will encounter difficulty in walking a straight line, there are also many sober people who cannot walk a straight line and, since the police usually do not know how the individual walks when completely sober, this test does not readily establish intoxication.

Alternatively, a suspect may be asked to put his finger to his nose, to balance on one foot, perhaps with the eyes closed, to balance on a narrow stool, to stand or walk heel to toe, to work mathematical problems, or to do any other task where the results are thought likely to corroborate police opinion of intoxication. However, the successful or unsuccessful accomplishment of any of the above tasks indicates little or nothing regarding intoxication in the light of individual performance differences and the effect of various medical conditions on performance.

The police have sometimes shone a light into the eyes of a suspect and testified that the manner of the contraction of the pupil indicated intoxication. However, medical authorities do not presently consider the manner of contraction of the pupil to have substantial relationship to intoxication, at least when the suspect's normal reaction is not known.

The arresting officer's testimony as to the slowness of the pupils to react may be easily discredited as a valid intoxication test if the arresting officer had no mechanical means of timing the slowness of pupil reaction. It also is apparent that the officer is not qualified medically to distinguish other conditions that might cause slowness of pupil reaction. The following cases shed light on the various legal issues surrounding the field sobriety tests.