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Field Sobriety Tests vs. Chemical Tests: Boston’s Approach to DUI Investigations


Massachusetts has one of the lowest arrest rates for drunk driving in the nation. There are many potential reasons behind this fact, but the severe penalties of an impaired driving conviction are no doubt a major factor. Before making an arrest, though, officers need probable cause. They utilize chemical tests and field sobriety tests in Boston to accomplish this.

While neither of these tests is foolproof, they’re frequently used in court to secure convictions for operating a vehicle under the influence (OUI). If you’re facing such charges, it’s important to understand the differences between chemical and field sobriety tests. This knowledge could play a crucial role in your defense.

Field Sobriety vs. Chemical Test Differences

Police can pull a person over if they suspect that a crime is occurring. However, they need to establish probable cause to make an arrest. Field sobriety and chemical tests are how they do this. Chemical tests are sometimes done roadside with breath alcohol tests, but they may also occur elsewhere (e.g., police station, hospital) via blood tests.

However, field sobriety tests always occur at the scene of the traffic stop. These include:

  • Roadside sobriety tests
  • Physical coordination assessments
  • Sobriety performance evaluations
  • Impairment assessments
  • Behavioral impairment indicators

In most cases, a chemical test that shows a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher is considered evidence of legal intoxication. However, this is not always necessary for a charge to hold up in court. Field sobriety tests can be utilized as evidence even if a chemical test doesn’t prove a person is intoxicated.

Clearly, police have various tools to charge drivers with OUI. This is why everyone should know their rights.

What Happens if You Fail a Drunk Driving Test?

If the police state that you failed either a field sobriety test or chemical test, you’ll be arrested on the spot. They’ll take you in for processing, and your vehicle will likely be towed. If you failed a breath test or other chemical assessment, your driver’s license will be immediately suspended for 30 days. This takes place before you ever even go to court for an OUI charge.

These penalties are steep — particularly since charges may later be dismissed or not hold up to legal scrutiny. However, the consequences are even worse in certain situations. For instance, individuals under the age of 21 can face longer license suspensions. And due to their career choice, commercial drivers can lose their CDL licenses.

The consequences for commercial drivers and minors are even more severe when you realize their BAC threshold is lower than the general public. A minor can be arrested with a BAC of 0.02%, and a commercial driver cannot exceed 0.04% while driving. No matter who you are, the consequences of failing an impairment test are severe.

What if You Refuse a Breath Test in Boston?

In Massachusetts, there’s no law that says you have to take a field sobriety test. If an officer asks you to do so, you can politely refuse. This will not result in any punitive actions, and your refusal typically cannot be used against you in court. However, this is one area where we see the biggest differences between chemical tests vs. field sobriety tests.

That’s because Massachusetts law requires drivers to take chemical tests when requested. Drivers agree to this by accepting a license in the state. No one can tell you whether you should refuse this test or not, but doing so will result in an immediate license suspension of at least 180 days. This severe consequence is geared toward reducing chemical test refusals.

Should You Just Accept a Plea Deal?

If the police say that you failed a chemical test or field sobriety test, you may think your options are limited. In fact, this is likely what the prosecutor will tell you. They’ll say that they have evidence to support a conviction, and they might offer a plea deal that they claim is fair. However, don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking police and prosecutors have your best interest in mind.

In reality, they just want to secure a conviction as quickly as possible. More importantly, a failed chemical test or field sobriety assessment does not necessarily mean you’re guilty. We recently learned that Massachusetts breath alcohol tests were malfunctioning for years, and police hid this fact. It got so bad that over 27,000 OUI convictions could potentially be overturned.

Additionally, issues with field sobriety tests are not uncommon. Errors on the part of the officer — or even health conditions you’re facing — could affect the results. Put simply, you should at least speak with an attorney before accepting a plea. Contact us today at The Law Firm of Brian Simoneau by calling (508)-625-5776. We’ll help you understand your options.

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