New Michigan Statute Regarding Field Sobriety Tests Causes Confusion

In Media Mentions by Chris Kessel

Whether you’d like it to be or not, nothing having anything to do with the law is black and white. Wording is unclear; different people have differing opinions regarding how, and when enforcement is appropriate; and the whole system is upended: Guilty people slide by, while innocent people are punished.

This is exactly what’s happening in Michigan.

Recent changes to state statute regarding field sobriety tests for impaired drivers are confusing, and frustrating police and prosecutors, and leading judges to throw sobriety test evidence out of court entirely.

Lawmakers’ intention was to create new standards that made it easier for Michigan police to arrest, and charge suspects with drugged driving. But as Livingston County Prosecutor William Vailliencourt has pointed out, the Legislature failed to clearly define whether or not field sobriety tests are admissible, which has left attorneys and judges across the state to interpret the law as they see fit.

Vailliencourt and his associates posit that the language of the law allows for field sobriety tests — which have traditionally included backwards recitation of the alphabet; the placement of finger to nose; and/or a roadside breath analysis — an argument with which Livingston County District Judge Carol Sue Reader agrees. (She has admitted roadside test evidence in at least two recent cases.)

But many defense attorneys in the state disagree with Vailliencourt and Reader. Citing the same language of the law, one Michigan defense attorney in particular, Lyle Dickson, has not minced words when saying he believes that the “admissible” interpretation is wrong.

“Obviously their cases are devastated without field sobriety tests coming in,” Dickson said Monday. “I don’t understand how Bill Vailliencourt can read the statute and say the plain language allows it to come in. It is only allowed in under certain, specific situations … which rarely apply.”

In Dickson’s particular case, his client — a Jackson County resident — was seen weaving, and later arrested and charged — in Livingston County — with operating under the influence of a controlled substance. Reader, who was the judge in the case, admitted testimony regarding the field sobriety tests conducted, as well as that from a drug recognition officer, which Dickson believes should not have been admissible, and which led to his client’s conviction.

What prosecutors, police, and defense attorneys can all agree on in this instance is that the law needs “tweaking (Vailliencourt’s word). And that’s exactly what’s happening.

“The wording is there and it’s ready to go,” said State Representative Dan Lauwers, regarding the omission of a clear definition for field sobriety tests.