Supreme Court on Use of Refusal to Submit to Field Sobriety Tests: No Clear Holding

Police officer giving sobriety test to young man to see if he is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Police cruiser is out of focus in the foreground.

In State v. Mecham, the Washington Supreme Court issued a fractured opinion in a DUI prosecution in which the state entered into evidence the defendant’s refusal to perform field sobriety tests (FST). Although the court stated in its June 16 ruling it was affirming the defendant’s conviction, the actual result appears to reverse the conviction in a 5-4 vote, with the reasoning behind the outcome ending up in a 4-1-2-2 split.

Lead Opinion
The four justices in the lead opinion reasoned that while a field sobriety test is a seizure, it is not a search, because it reveals only limited characteristics associated with inebriation similar to what a casual observer could detect. Thus, the opinion states, a field sobriety test is not a search under either article I, section 7 of the state constitution or the Fourth Amendment.

Fairhurst Concurrence/Dissent
Specifically, Justice Mary Fairhurst found that a Terry analysis must begin anew at the time the officer formed his suspicion that Mecham was intoxicated. Terry does not authorize a search for evidence of a crime. Mecham was already under arrest when the officer began to suspect DUI. Therefore, the officer’s purpose in requesting a field sobriety test was to gather evidence of Mecham’s guilt.

McCloud Dissent
Justice Gordon McCloud concluded that a field sobriety test is permissible if to protect officer or public safety. But, if it does not further any legitimate, immediate safety need, then it is impermissible. Because Mecham was already handcuffed and under arrest for the warrant, he could not endanger the public by getting behind the wheel of his car and driving away. Thus the officer asked for a field sobriety test solely to gather evidence.

“When a divided court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of a majority, the narrowest ground upon which a majority agreed represents the court’s holding.” City of Seattle v. Evans, 182 Wn. App. 188, 193-94, 327 P.3d 1303 (2014). In a 7-2 vote, it appears the most narrow holding is that there are some circumstances where the state may use the results of a field sobriety test (or a refusal), because it is either not a search or is a search but justified by Terry.

This is adapted from an original post on the Legally Sound Blog.

One thought on “Supreme Court on Use of Refusal to Submit to Field Sobriety Tests: No Clear Holding

  1. Jonathan S.

    It seems to me that the prosecutor should have offered the evidence, not to prove the accused was guilty because he refused the “voluntary” FSBs, but instead as the officer’s professional observations of the accused’s behavior at the time the officer made the “request”.
    “…” = yeah right!?! Not from the detainees’ perspective.

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