Why don’t the police just skip directly to the Breathalyzer?

It seems like a huge waste of a police officer’s time to administer these lengthy field sobriety tests. Why aren’t all police cars equipped with portable Breathalyzer units, so they can skip the whole walk the line / touch your nose / say the alphabet, etc? Surely the cost of the units would be more than offset by the fact that it would free up a lot of the officers time?


It is all about the slippery slope of probable cause. They have handheld lab-grade breathalyzers now that can be had for $200 or less. However, the police aren’t allowed to just whip something like that out whenever the mood strikes. It just follows the general idea that the police can’t just test people or interrogate people on a whim any time they feel like it. The field sobriety test proves that they had cause to believe someone is intoxicated and needs to move to more definitive testing. The slippery slope is that police could just give people breathalyzers wherever they felt like it and U.S. law is designed to fight against that.

Just a guess, but I think that under some circumstances, a breathalyzer may be challenged as the equivalent of a search. If so, demonstrating that a driver is impaired may demonstrate just cause for the breathalyzer. Plus the videotape of a driver stumbling around, too drunk to speak clearly is a lot more convincing in court than a breathalyzer showing the blood alcohol is fractionally over the limit. One demonstrates the driver is technically intoxicated, the other demonstrates the driver is a menace.

Could it be that they don’t want to provide a defendant with evidence proving his innocence?
It might be that they’d feel silly if you were obviously intoxicated, passed the breathalyzer, and then they insisted on giving you the field sobriety test?

In Canada, it’s in part because of the right to counsel. Sobriety tests and screening devices provide probable cause to make a demand for a breath sample, but are not admissible as evidence of impairment, because the person has been detained by the road side but has not been able to consult counsel, as provided by the Charter. So once the police have probable cause to make the demand, they then take the accused to the station where he/she can consult cousel by telephone, before giving a potentially incriminating sample.

Portable units are not as reliable. Here is a picture of a commonly used unit which is kept at a police station.

I believe, in the United States, the accused may refuse to perform field sobriety exercises without any penalty. The police usually videotape the suspects.

If the officer has decided to adminster field sobriety exercises, they have usually decided to arrest the suspect. I’m sure I couldn’t perform the field sobriety exercises stone cold sober.

You can still be cited for impaired operation with a BAC below .08. If you’re a super lightweight and get wrecked off of one beer, your .04 BAC may not save you if you’re operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol. FSTs will bear this out.

It’s really not about performing the tests flawlessly, but rather, what type of mistakes you’re making. Those who are impaired tend to make the same types of mistakes and that’s really what an LEO is looking at. Believe me, LEOs realize that some people can’t walk a straight line no matter how sober they are. Plus, the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is one test you really can’t screw up if you’re sober.

I’m not sure about the field sobriety exercises, but I know that implied consent laws mean that if you’re asked to take a breath or blood test and refuse, you can get fines (jailtime in some states).

I thought it was a condition for being permitted to drive on the State’s roads.

In Canada, though, the police can’t demand field sobriety tests. The driving observed, along with the actions of the driver when interacting with the police (getting his licence out and such) are pretty much it. If the cop suspects you’ve been drinking he can then demand you blow in the portable screening device, the results of which aren’t admissible as evidence of impairment. If you fail that, THEN you get hauled back to the detachment and talk to a laywer. The portable screening device sorta takes the place of the sobriety tests. Of course, the device is unneccesary if you’re falling down drunk, can barely talk, and smell like a distellery. Most cops would prefer not to use the devices, as it’s often perceived as hurting their case.

Cops love it when you refuse to blow, though, as the consequences are pretty much the same as failing the breathalyzer but way easier to prove in court.

Well yes, if you’re on a private road or somesuch I don’t imagine the implied consent laws apply. But that’s basically what they say, I gather, that if you drive on state-supported roads, you’re automatically giving your consent to a breath test.

Au contraire: R. v. Orbanski; R. v. Elias, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 3

In Australia and New Zealand, we have the RBT- Random Breath Test.

Basically, the cops set up on the side of the road, lay out road cones to create another lane, then simply wave cars into it at random, use the hand-held Breathalyser, and, if you pass, you’re on your way again- total elapsed time, about 3 minutes.

If you’re over the .05 BAC, though, then… well, you’re in the shit, put it that way.

They can breathalyse you at any time you’re operating a motor vehicle- it’s got nothing to do with “Probable Cause” or anything like that- it’s just part of the deal if you want to drive on the roads here.

In NZ, you can refuse the breathalyser test, and the Evidential Breath Test, but you can’t refuse the blood test- failing to take the blood test is treated as if you were over the .05 limit, unless the rules have changed since I was there.

I’m pretty sure it’s much the same in Australia, although different states have slightly different rules, IIRC.

You guys don’t play around. .05 is pretty darn low as in 2 drinks for some people. The U.S. didn’t move to a more uniform .08 until the 80’s and 90’s. Before that, 0.1 was a common standard for many states and sometimes even higher. I have heard people push for an even lower limit here but most cops will tell you that the .08 people aren’t the ones they are usually busting. It takes more than that for most people to fail the field sobriety test and they often don’t even have reason to give one at that level.

That’s right, and they widely advertise this. The general message is very simple: DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE!

The .05 rule is strictly enforced, too.

There have been some calls to increase the BAC limit to .08, as in the US, but it’s not likely to happen this side of Josef Stalin winning the Nobel Peace Prize…

As has been stated, the field sobriety test is performed first to justify a breath, blood or urine test. When I was arrested, I didn’t do the breath test until I reached the police station, so I was actually at least 2 hours away from my last drink. Worked in my favor, except that I was still more than double the legal limit…

I actually asked the cop if we could just skip the FST, I would cop to it, and we could get going. He laughed and said no way. I was worried that someone I knew would see me, but then again, most decent people are at home asleep by 2:45 am… :wink:

Refusing a breath test in CA is a bad idea.

In my state, 0.05 is our highest one. It’s 0.02 for drivers of heavy or public vehicles, and some younger or inexperienced drivers. It’s ZERO for very new, young drivers (so mind the cough medicine and vanilla essence).

Drug and Alcohol Penalties for Drivers in the State of New South Wales

Further to what Martini Enfield said, in New South Wales, the police set up Random Breath Testing field stations where they pull over cars at random, or every third car or whatever (in Victoria, they are known to completely cover an intersection with four RBT stations - one on each street - and pull over everybody. If you refuse a breath test, that is an offence with the same penalties as failing one. If you fail the breathalyser, you are arrested and conveyed to a police station where you will be tested again on a larger testing unit (the handheld ones are not admissible in court, but the larger, desk-mounted ones are).

Coupla breathalyser stories:

1. Last year, I decided to go down to the pub because they have a liquor store as well, and I wanted some beer to take home. I drove into the carpark from the highway, but exited it from a back lane. I came out of the back lane and turned right onto another major road. As I did so, a cop car went past. I got onto the road, and sure enough, I saw him in my mirror swinging a U-turn. He got up behind me at the traffic lights, and when they flipped green and I got back onto the highway, he pulled me over a few moments later. I had done nothing wrong, but the fact that I’d come out of that lane that leads from the pub was enough for him to drop whatever he was doing, and come back out of his way to try and pin me. He walked up to my window and informed me it was a random breath test. Uh huh. He asked me if I’d had anything to drink, and I told him I’d gone to the pub to purchase alcohol for consumption at home. I pointed to the bag on the passenger seat, and he looked disappointed. I blew a green light on the machine (stone cold sober), and then he asked to see my licence, which I showed him. Then he walked around the car and did a quick visual inspection of the tyres, etc. He studied the registration sticker on the windscreen, and asked me if it was my car. This is standard procedure for these situations. If I’d been an old lady or something, I might have just got the breathalyser and no interest shown in my car. If I was the driver of a car full of teenagers, I might have been asked to pop the hood, and had everything checked. After that, it was, ‘thank you sir, have a good day’, and I was outta there.

2. Driving home from work late one night, I was on a deserted street in an industrial area. There was a fifteen year-old beater Toyota Celica parked along way ahead of me. It was indicating to pull out and had ample time to do it in front of me, but the driver didn’t. As soon as I went past, the Toyota pulled out behind me. Next thing, there was a ‘WOOP’ and red and blue flashing lights on the dash. Unmarked police car (they use everything from sports cars to Kombi vans). I pulled over, but kept the car in gear with the motor running in case it was just some nutjob with lights in his car. A uniformed cop got out. Same thing - “good evening, random breath testing, have you had any drinks today?” (I hadn’t) I think there must have been a big RBT field station on the nearby parallel main road, and this guy was cruising for ‘rat runners’ trying to use the back streets to avoid them. They often do that.

So yeah, every police car in my state (including the unmarked ones) carries breathalyser equipment, and the blood alcohol limit can be as low as zero. The penalties are stiff, too. It’s a good thing too. If you drive a car and hold a licence, then you agree to give police those rights. Or, you can defend your liberties - but you’ll need to take the bus.

Queensland is much the same as NSW re: BACs for drivers, but the police here don’t use random unmarked cars- they’re almost always brand-spanking new, and are invariably Holden Commodores, Ford Falcons, or Toyota/Mistubishi V6s.

They also have “SMART STATE” registration plates (most people have “SUNSHINE STATE” plates on their car), and, until they wised up, used to have obvious heavy-duty aerials on them, too.

Nonetheless, all police cars here have the hand-held breathalyser units in them, and the police can and do simply pull people over and breathalyse them- of course, 99% of the time they do it for reasons outlined by TheLoadedDog- you’re teenager driving a car full of other teenagers/you’ve got the Bling Bling or Doof Doof music cranking in your “Fully Sick” car/Just come out of the pub/run an amber light/there’s an RBT in the area and you might be avoiding it/etc.

And I’m glad they do it. People can jump up and down about their civil liberties all they like, but the fact is that the roads here are safer as a result of RBTs, and people are starting to realise that it’s not cool to get behind the wheel of a car after you’ve drunk a couple of schooners of the amber stuff.

Of course, if you lot think being breathalysed is a violation of your civil liberties, it’s probably best if we don’t go into Speed Cameras, either…

I always thought the field tests were issued when police wanted a few laughs.