In a significant ruling, Washington’s highest court tackled the question of whether a defendant’s refusal to perform a field sobriety test may be used against him at trial on a charge of driving under the influence (DUI). The court ultimately held that a field sobriety test is not a search but a seizure justified under the doctrine of Terry. Therefore, the court explained, defendants do not have a constitutional right to refuse a field sobriety test, and such a refusal may properly be used as evidence of guilt against them at trial.
In State of Washington v. Mecham (Wash. June 16, 2016), a police officer ran a random license check on the defendant’s vehicle while stopped behind him at a light. After finding an outstanding warrant, the police officer pulled over the defendant and arrested him. The officer smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath and observed an open beer can in the defendant’s passenger seat. The officer asked the defendant if he would consent to perform a field sobriety test, and the defendant refused. The police eventually obtained a search warrant authorizing a blood draw, which indicated alcohol in the defendant’s system. Following a trial, a jury found the defendant guilty of felony DUI. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in allowing evidence of his refusal to perform a field sobriety test to be used against him at trial.
In Washington, although prosecutors may not comment on a refusal to waive a constitutional right, the state may admit evidence that a defendant is asserting a non-constitutional right as evidence of consciousness of guilt at trial. On appeal, the court narrowed the dispositive issue to whether a defendant has a constitutional right to refuse to perform a field sobriety test.