Barone: Bad law could make our roads more dangerous
Last October, Michigan Public Act 315 was presented to the Gov. Rick Snyder and signed into law. This new law, which became effective on Jan. 12, makes all field sobriety tests inadmissible during the trial of an allegedly intoxicated driver.
Ostensibly the law was designed to pave the way for officers investigating those cases involving intoxication by drugs other than alcohol. But in trying to increase traffic safety by easing the evidence necessary to lawfully make drugged driving arrests, Michigan lawmakers have actually made convicting those drivers much more difficult. Here’s why.
During a typical intoxicated driving arrest, a suspect is stopped by the police for some type of bad driving or other observed violation of the traffic law. Then, after smelling alcoholic beverages or suspecting other drug use, the police officer typically will administer any one of a variety of field sobriety tasks. The preferred police procedure in these circumstances dictates the administration of all three of the “standardized” field sobriety tasks, which includes the horizontal gaze nystagmus, the walk and turn and one leg stand.
Next, the police officer will administer a roadside preliminary breath test after which the motorist will be arrested for intoxicated driving. Thereafter, the motorist will be taken to the station for a more accurate breath or blood test. The new law changes none of this.
What’s changed is what happens after the case gets to court. Now, if the accused intoxicated driver asks for a trial rather than pleading guilty, all of the evidence regarding the motorist’s performance on these roadside field sobriety tasks will be inadmissible. The new law will make it harder for the state to convict intoxicated drivers at trial.
Before this law only the preliminary breath test evidence that was inadmissible at trial. Roadside breath testing lacks sufficient scientific safeguards to be presented to a jury. With the exception of the horizontal gaze nystagmus, field sobriety tasks are not scientific, so barring a violation of police procedure, their admissibility at trial was assured. Now, even if the motorist can’t state the alphabet, falls down while trying to stand on one leg, or fails to walk a straight line, the jury will never know.
Other problems include the law’s failure to define “roadside analysis.” What exactly is a field sobriety test? Does this only include one of the three standardized field sobriety tests, or might it include recitation of the alphabet, counting backwards or any other “field sobriety task” conjured up in the imagination of a police officer? The lack of standardization in the new law actually increases the possibly that innocent motorists will be wrongfully arrested for drunk driving, while decreasing the likelihood that real drunken drivers will be convicted.
While the proponents of these changes to Michigan’s intoxicated driving law have touted them as the next great thing in the aggressive enforcement of intoxicated driving laws, the law fails in its essential purpose. This problem could have been averted had the Legislature consulted the defense bar, those attorneys with expertise in the defense of intoxicate driving cases.
When will lawmakers realize that rushing sloppy or splenetic legislation through the system, without proper debate and deliberation by all sides, leads to unintended consequences and bad results?
Patrick T. Barone is the principal and founding member of The Barone Defense Firm and the author of “Defending Drinking Drivers” (James Publishing).