Supreme Court of Washington Holds There Is No Constitutional Right to Refuse Field Sobriety Test in DUI Case

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.

The court noted that both the state and the federal constitutions grant individuals the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures, and it went on to categorize a field sobriety test as a seizure, not a search. A seizure occurs when a reasonable person would have believed that he or she was not free to leave, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident. Under Terry, a traffic stop is a seizure authorizing an officer to conduct a brief, investigative detention that is reasonably related to the purposes of the stop, as long as the physical intrusion and the length of the stop are limited. The Mecham court held that a field sobriety test constitutes a seizure, but the seizure is lawful if it is supported by a reasonable suspicion of driving under the influence. The court went on to reject the argument that a field sobriety test is a search, since none of the activities involved in a field sobriety test are private by nature.

The court concluded that the initial traffic stop was supported by a reasonable suspicion to investigate the outstanding warrant, and the seizure was justified under Terry. As a result, the court upheld the defendant’s conviction. The court’s ruling has larger implications in holding that the law does not provide individuals with a right to refuse field sobriety tests upon a reasonable suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

It is important to understand that you have the right to hire experienced defense counsel of your choosing when contesting a criminal charge. At Blair & Kim, PLLC, our Seattle DUI attorneys provide aggressive, high-quality legal representation to individuals fighting drug and alcohol related offenses, domestic violence cases, and many other charges. To consult with one of our experienced criminal defense lawyers, contact Blair & Kim, PLLC by phone at (206) 622-6562 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Washington Court Suppresses DUI Breath Test Results After Police Fail to Provide Statutory Warnings, Seattle Attorneys Blog, published May 9, 2016

Washington Appeals Court Holds No Exigent Circumstances Justify Warrantless Blood Test in Marijuana DUI Case, Seattle Attorneys Blog, published March 25, 2016

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