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Field Sobriety and Breath Test Results Challenged in Appeal by Pennsylvania DUI Defendant

By Niagara (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsAn appeal in the Pennsylvania Superior Court claimed that a field sobriety test conducted on a snow-covered road, along with breath testing conducted without the 20-minute observation period required by Pennsylvania law, were insufficient to support a conviction for driving under the influence (DUI). The defendant/appellant in Commonwealth v. Favinger challenged the sufficiency of the evidence against him and the legality of the traffic stop that led to his arrest. The Superior Court ultimately affirmed the verdict and sentence, but its opinion offers a useful overview of the different ways that prosecutors may establish that a defendant was impaired by alcohol in a DUI case.

A state trooper pulled the defendant over at about 3:20 a.m. on January 29, 2011. The trooper testified that the defendant continued to travel about half a mile after the trooper activated his emergency lights, finally stopping in a driveway. He claimed that he detected the odor of alcohol, and that the defendant’s eyes were “bloodshot and glassy.” The defendant agreed to field sobriety testing, which the trooper claimed he failed. Breath testing conducted after the defendant’s arrest showed blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.128 percent. The defendant was later convicted of DUI–general impairment and DUI–high rate of alcohol.

The defendant raised six issues on appeal relating to three broad issues: (1) whether the breath test evidence was sufficient to support the conviction, (2) whether the field sobriety testing evidence was sufficient, and (3) whether the traffic stop was valid and supported by probable cause. In its opinion, the Superior Court cited a 2013 case, Commonwealth v. Teems, which identified the standards for proving guilt under the Pennsylvania DUI statute. Teems specifically states that BAC evidence is not required. The state may present evidence of the defendant’s behavior, including general demeanor and appearance, behavior towards law enforcement officers, and performance on field sobriety testing, in order to prove that a defendant is “incapable of safely driving” a motor vehicle.

On the issue of breath testing, the defendant claimed that the officer administering the test did not observe him for “at least 20 consecutive minutes,” as required by state regulations, prior to the test. The court noted evidence showing that the arresting officer also administered the breath test, and that he began the 20-minute observation period at about 3:50 a.m. He administered a breath test at 4:11 a.m. that did not produce an adequate breath sample. Two additional tests, performed about five minutes later, showed BAC of 0.128 and 0.131 percent.

The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the presence of snow on the roadway during the field sobriety test, which caused the defendant to slip and fall, made the test results unreliable. The arresting officer’s testimony, and the jury’s conclusions based on that evidence, were adequate to support the guilty verdict. The court reached the same conclusion regarding the trooper’s testimony regarding probable cause to initiate a traffic stop, which claimed that the defendant’s vehicle veered out of its lane of traffic in violation of state law.

If you have been arrested or charged with DUI, you should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced DUI attorney, who can advise you of your rights and help you plan the best possible defense. Zachary B. Cooper, Attorney at Law, P.C. has dedicated 100% of his law practice to DUI defense. Please contact us today online or at (215) 542-0800 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania DUI Defendant Argues on Appeal that Verdict Went against Weight of Evidence, Gets New Trial, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, May 13, 2014

Court Sides with Police Testimony over Video Evidence in DUI Case, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, May 1, 2014

Pennsylvania Superior Court Affirms DUI Conviction, Demonstrating the Importance of Preserving Error at Trial, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, March 20, 2014

Photo credit: By Niagara (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.