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Sobriety Test Ruled a 'Search'


September-October 1994

The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that a field sobriety test administered to a motorist constituted a "search." However, the court found that in this case the search was reasonable, as the officer giving the test had probable cause to suspect that the individual was driving under the influence (State v. Nagel, Ore. SupCt., No. S40605, Sept. 9, 1994, 56 CrL 1004).

Jeffrey Nagel was stopped by a police officer because one headlight was broken on Nagel's car. The officer suspected Nagel had been drinking and administered sobriety tests (counting backwards, walking toe to heel in a line, etc.). After Nagel failed several of the tests, he was arrested for driving under the influence. The court found that:

By requiring the defendant to perform a series of unusual maneuvers and acts, the officer was able to detect certain aspects of the defendant's physical and psychological condition that were not detectable through simple observation by any member of the public or a police officer located in a public place. ... Assuming that they [the sobriety tests] were [searches], however, probable cause and exigent circumstances existed.

Nagel argued that the tests constituted a 'search' and violated his right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.