Field Sobriety Tests

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 What Are Field Sobriety Tests? What Are Some Examples of Field Sobriety Tests?

Drunk driving refers to operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. More specifically, the term refers to driving while the blood alcohol content (or, “BAC”) meets or exceeds the state specified limit. Most states would consider a driver to be legally drunk when their BAC is between 0.08% and 0.10%.

In order to determine whether a driver is legally drunk, there are a number of tests designed to measure a person’s sobriety. When a driver is stopped by a police officer on suspicion of drunk driving, the officer will most likely ask them to perform several of these field sobriety tests in order to determine whether alcohol has impaired their ability to drive.

Some of the most common field sobriety tests are:

  • Alcohol/Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: The officer holds either a pen or flashlight approximately twelve inches from the driver’s face. They will ask the driver to watch the pen or flashlight as they move it from one side to the other. The officer is looking for an involuntary jerking of the eyeball when the pen is as far to the side as possible. The reason for this is that, supposedly, the driver’s eyeball will involuntarily jerk more frequently the higher the driver’s BAC is;
  • Standing On One foot While Counting: The driver is asked to stand on one foot with their hands at their side and the other foot extended. The officer may also ask the driver to simultaneously count to a specific number;
  • Walking An Imaginary Line: The driver is directed to walk a straight line while touching the heel of one foot to the toe of the other. The officer may simultaneously give a separate instruction, such as to walk ten steps forward, turn, and then walk nine steps back to the starting position. This is all to be completed heel-to-toe;
  • Finger To Nose: With their eyes closed and arms extended, the driver is instructed to touch their nose with an index finger;
  • Alternate Clapping: The officer instructs the driver to clap the palms of their hands together, then the backs of their hands together, while simultaneously counting to a specific number;
  • Recite The Alphabet: Simply put, the officer asks the driver to recite the alphabet. They may ask for the alphabet either in its entirety, or a portion of it;
  • Count Backwards: The officer will ask the driver to count backwards from a specified number; and
  • Fingers To Thumb: The driver is asked to touch a specified finger to their thumb.

Do I Have To Submit To a Field Sobriety Test?

Simply put, no, you do not legally have to submit to a field sobriety test. Field sobriety tests are largely considered to be voluntary. After the officer has pulled over the driver, and has asked them to submit to a field sobriety test, the driver is allowed the right to refuse the test. However, it is imperative to note that the police may arrest the driver for refusing to submit to field testing. Additionally, officers do not generally inform the driver of their right to refuse a field sobriety test.

Should the police officer believe that the driver is under the influence and is therefore impaired to drive, the officer may arrest the driver. Many states require the driver to submit to a chemical test after the arrest if they have refused a field test. However, even if a driver submits to the field sobriety test and the officer states that the driver failed the test, the driver has access to the results of the test after the arrest. As such, they can challenge the validity of the tests in court, which will be further discussed later on.

A driver may refuse any chemical or field sobriety test prior to being arrested. Once arrested and taken to the police station, the driver is legally required to submit to at least one type of chemical test. Refusing to submit to a chemical test after being arrested will result in the suspension of a driver’s license, as well as enhanced legal penalties.

To summarize, while submitting to a field sobriety test is not mandatory, refusing to take one can lead to suspicion. Generally speaking, it is more difficult to refute the results of a chemical test than it is to contest the results of a field sobriety test.

Are Field Sobriety Tests Reliable? Can Their Results Be Challenged?

Before discussing whether field sobriety tests are reliable, it is important to note that such tests are generally considered to be discriminatory against those with physical or mental impairments. An example of this would be how an entirely sober person who has a condition affecting their involuntary muscle movement may fail a field sobriety test. Some other physical conditions that could affect a person’s ability to perform such tests include, but may not be limited to:

  • Poor equilibrium;
  • Difficulty walking;
  • Difficulty processing directions quickly; and
  • An inability to perform specific actions.

These tests are meant to be used as a simple tool to help the officer determine whether there is cause to arrest a driver. As such, field sobriety tests are extremely subjective. To reiterate, these tests are not required; they will very rarely help a driver’s case for themselves. If the driver has one of the aforementioned physical or mental conditions, it will adversely affect the officer’s ability to make an accurate determination. If the driver is going to submit to any field sobriety tests, they should inform the officer of their mental or physical issues before actually taking the tests.

Once arrested for drunk driving, the defendant should try to challenge the validity of the tests. It is important to note that police are legally required to videotape their stops. As such, it is likely that the field sobriety test will be recorded, further supporting the validity challenge. Several field sobriety tests are considered to be extremely inaccurate. An example of this would be how the Alcohol / Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test is considered to be so unreliable, its results are generally excluded from evidence during the court trial.

Once you have been arrested, and the officer has stated that you have failed the field sobriety test, you have the right to challenge the validity of the test in court. Again, field sobriety tests are subjective exercises intended to test the driver’s attention and motor skills abilities. Many drivers will fail the administered test due to the fact that they are nervous or under a considerable amount of stress.

Do I Need an Attorney For Issues Involving Field Sobriety Tests?

Some states will allow the driver to consult with an attorney prior to submitting to a field sobriety test. However, if they have been taken into custody because the police suspect impairment, the driver must submit to a chemical test and will not be allowed to consult with their attorney before submitting the chemical test.

If you are being charged with drunk driving, and wish to contest the results of a field sobriety test, you should consult with a local DUI or DWI lawyer as soon as possible. As state laws vary in terms of drunk driving and field sobriety testing, an experienced and local DUI or DWI attorney will be best suited to helping you understand your state’s laws and how they will affect your case. An experienced attorney can help you contest the sobriety test results, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.


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