If you have been pulled over for reasonable suspicion of DUI, the law enforcement officer will most likely ask you to undergo one or several tests to determine if you are intoxicated. Most will begin with the field sobriety tests before moving on to a breathalyzer test or a blood test if your field sobriety test is positive. Law enforcement believes that these tests are good initial indicators of your blood alcohol level, and they often rely upon them as they make their reports and when they testify in court against you at a DUI hearing. Knowing more about them will help you and your attorney fight your case and get your penalty reduced or your case dismissed altogether.
There are three main parts to field sobriety tests. These tests have been around since the early 80’s after researchers from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, gave this recommendation for testing for intoxication on the road. The tests are supposed to show the difference between a blood alcohol concentration above 0.08% versus below the same level.
Upon the officer’s decision to have you perform the tests, he or she will ask you to leave your car. The first test is known as the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. This test allows the law enforcement official to test your eyes for jerking when you are gazing peripherally. There are six cues altogether that they are looking for, and the number of cues that are positive supposedly determines an approximation of your blood alcohol level. The cues include smooth eye movement, nystagmus or jerking when the eyes are at their full peripheral levels and nystagums at 45% of the periphery; the three tests are performed on each eye for a total of six cues. The NHTSA states that blood alcohol levels are greater than 0.06% if 4 to 6 cues are positive.
The second standardized test is the walk-and-turn test. During this test, you will be asked to walk heel-toe-heel-toe down a straight line. After walking a certain number of steps, you will be asked to turn and perform the same steps back down the line. You will need good coordination, attention and balance to perform the test properly. Law enforcement believes that this is a good test of a person’s divided attention levels, which are needed to drive a vehicle.
During the one-leg-stand test, you will be asked to stand on one foot with the other foot a few inches off the ground. Typically, you will be asked to count to a certain number. Officers will watch to see if you need to use your arms for balance or if you noticeably sway. Of course, having to put your foot down before the allotted time is completed is also considered a positive result.
According to the NHTSA, they believe that the results of these tests are accurate over 90% of the time. Protocol states that officers should administer a breathalyzer test or blood test on you if you fail the standardized field sobriety tests.
However, numerous law enforcement officers have their own tests that they may use as part of their field sobriety tests. For example, they may ask you to recite the alphabet, count backwards, count fingers on their hands or touch your nose with your finger while you close your eyes. It is most likely that you will be asked to perform these nonstandardized tests if you live in a state in which standardized tests only allow the officer to detain you rather than give them reason to arrest you.
If you are intoxicated, you very well may perform poorly on some or all of these tests. On the other hand, several other reasons exist beyond intoxication for poor performance on field sobriety tests. The following list shows you just a few other reasons for them.
• Medical conditions
A variety of medical conditions can limit your movements, impair your balance or destroy your normal coordination skills. Some examples include prior injuries, fused spinal discs, acute or chronic pain, brain injuries and epilepsy. In addition, numerous medications can also impair your test results.
Being overweight can impact how you see your feet and the road for a walk-and-turn test and can impair your sense of balance.
• Eye conditions
Poor eyesight as well as chronic conditions, such as glaucoma and cataracts, can impair your movements when walking and can give incorrect results for the horizontal gaze nystagmus test.
• Poor road surfaces
Slippery surfaces from rain, snow and ice can impact your movements once you are out of the car.
Certain clothing will impair your movements when walking and turning while billowing clothing can cause you to lose your balance in the wind.
Shoes without good rubber grips on the bottom as well as heeled shoes or wedges can cause you to slip while walking or to lose your balance.
Many attorneys today recommend refusing the field sobriety tests. Doing this will not hurt you because refusal of this battery of tests is not cause for having your license revoked such as can happen if you refuse a BAC blood test. The results of these tests will only be used by the officers as additional evidence against you. In fact, many courts have disproven the efficacy of these tests. As always, never argue with the police officer or become belligerent. Merely state politely that you refuse the test.
However, if you did agree to field sobriety tests, an attorney may be able to dispute the legality or efficacy of the results for numerous reasons. Standardized and nonstandardized field sobriety tests are fairly arbitrary assessments performed by law enforcement officers that often do not adequately portray how intoxicated you are or whether you have consumed alcohol at all. Often, your nerves alone can change your results. Request legal counsel as soon as you are arrested to see if your performance on these tests can be disproven as evidence.