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  • WisBar News
    August 16, 2013

    Field Sobriety Tests Not Always Required in OWI Cases

    Aug. 16, 2013 – A state appeals court recently affirmed that drunk driving is ill-advised, especially after an officer specifically says it’s not advisable, and offers a ride home.

    In December of 2011, Scott Bartelt was socializing in the early morning hours at the Bottom’s Up Tavern in the Village of Butler, west of Milwaukee. Apparently, socializing turned to belligerent behavior, and a bartender waived down police for assistance.

    The officer approached as two men escorted Bartelt from the bar. He was clearly drunk, according to court documents, and swelling above his eye indicated his involvement in a fight. The bartender and other patrons told police he was intoxicated and starting fights.

    The officer identified Bartelt’s vehicle in the parking lot and told him he should not drive. He offered Bartelt a ride home. Bartelt declined and said he would walk home. The police officer went inside the bar to collect more information then resumed his patrol.

    Ten minutes later, the officer passed Bartelt driving in the opposite direction. Bartelt quickly turned into a driveway and ran into the homeowner’s backyard.

    The officer hid and waited for Bartelt to come out. When he did, the officer arrested him for OWI, without conducting any field sobriety tests.

    He was ultimately convicted on charges of OWI and prohibited alcohol concentration, second offenses, after a court denied Bartelt’s motion to suppress evidence.

    On appeal, Bartelt argued that the officer lacked probable cause to arrest him because the officer did not perform field sobriety tests. But in State v. Bartelt, 2013AP110-CR (Aug. 14, 2013), Chief Appeals Court Judge Richard Brown disagreed.

    “Considering the totality of the circumstances in this case, the officer had probable cause to arrest Bartelt,” Judge Brown wrote in a one-judge opinion.

    The officer had information that Bartelt was causing problems in a bar, Brown explained, and various witnesses said Bartelt was intoxicated. In addition, the officer was trained to identify signs of impairment. Bartelt exhibited those signs, and further implicated himself by fleeing from the car when he saw the officer driving.

    “With all of that information, on top of his personal observations of Bartelt’s appearance and smell of intoxicants, the officer had probable cause to suspect Bartelt was too drunk to drive,” Judge Brown wrote. “This conclusion was confirmed by Bartelt’s ready acquiescence to the officer’s demand that he leave his car in the bar’s parking lot.”

    Judge Brown said a field sobriety test “would have been superfluous,” and affirmed that field sobriety tests are not always required to establish probable cause in OWI cases.  

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