Where Officers Did Not Conduct Field Sobriety Tests, the Totality of the Circumstances Still Established Probable Cause to Arrest

In a recent criminal law matter, a Superior Court of Connecticut considered, among many claims, whether a hearing officer erred by finding that police had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff for DUI.

This case arose from an incident that occurred at approximately 1:25am on June 20, 2010, in Fairfield, Connecticut. At this time, the plaintiff was driving her car when she swerved out of the travel lane and struck a wall and shrubbery on a homeowner’s property. The homeowner called police, and when officers arrived, they found the plaintiff alert inside her car. They observed the strong odor of alcohol, and the plaintiff had red glossy eyes and slurred speech. The plaintiff admitted to having four or five cocktails the earlier that night, and started to complain about neck pain. As a result, the officers did not administer field sobriety tests and had the plaintiff transported to a hospital in Bridgeport.

At approximately 4:00am, officers asked the plaintiff to submit to a urine test. She declined, and signed paperwork to that effect. The plaintiff was given a misdemeanor citation for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI), in violation of General Statutes § 14-227a. Fairfield police notified the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) of this arrest, and the DMV held a hearing to suspend the plaintiff’s license on July 13, 2010, at which the plaintiff was present. The hearing officer made numerous findings, including the existence of probable cause to arrest, and ordered that the plaintiff’s license be suspended for a period of six months. The plaintiff moved for reconsideration, and when this was denied, she appealed to the Superior Court on multiple grounds, including lack of probable cause to arrest.

When the state courts review the actions of an administrative body, they must decide whether the agency “acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally or in abuse of its discretion” when it issues in order. The substantial evidence rule applies, meaning an administrative finding will be upheld “if the record affords a substantial basis of fact from which the fact in issue can be reasonably inferred.” Probable cause is established:

[W]hen the facts and circumstances within the knowledge of the officer and of which he has reasonable and trustworthy information are sufficient in themselves to warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that the person arrested had committed an offense.

Thus, an arrest for driving under the influence may take place if probable cause is established based on the totality of the circumstances, as supported by direct and circumstantial evidence alike. In this case, the Superior Court determined the hearing officer had ample evidence to support probable cause to arrest, as shown by testimony of the plaintiff’s appearance when officers arrived at the scene of the accident. Furthermore, the fact that the officers did not conduct field sobriety tests did not negate this finding: such tests are but one factor in making conclusions on probable cause. After the Superior Court considered the plaintiff’s other contentions and did not find in her favor with respect to any of them, it dismissed her administrative appeal.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence), an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.