Tennessee Supreme Court Decision on Field Sobriety Tests Overhyped

The recent decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court on February 20, 2014 in the case of State of Tennessee v. David Dwayne Bell has been reported in the news media like it has broken new ground in favor of prosecutors in the area of DUI or Driving Under the Influence cases.

In reality it is just one set of facts under “the totality of circumstances test” that has been in existence in Tennessee for several years.

The defendant Bell was driving on the wrong side of the road on a divided highway (U.S. 441) in Sevier County, which (1) would give the arresting officer a reasonable articulable suspicion that the defendant had committed a traffic violation in the officers presence that would justify him being pulled over, (2) the odor of alcohol from the defendants person would provide further reasons for the officer to ask the defendant to voluntarily perform field sobriety tests (FST’s), (the author believes that motorists should be informed that they do not have to perform field sobriety tests but that is not now required under Tennessee law); (3) the defendants reply to the officers inquiry as to his alcohol consumption, “more than I should have I know”, combined together demonstrated sufficient facts to ask the defendant to perform the tests.

The successful completion of the FST’s may have been a significant factor in favor of the defendant in a jury or bench trial or the “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt standard” but Mr. Bells performance on the FST’s in combination with the traffic offense and odor of alcohol were sufficient to overrule the motion to suppress the evidence filed by the defendant but said satisfactory performance of the tests might have been enough to obtain a not guilty verdict in the mind of the jurors or judge in a trial.

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