It happens to a lot of drivers. You head home after drinking a couple of beers because you feel capable of making it home safely. Before you know it, you hear that blaring siren and see those notorious flashing red and blue lights coming up behind your vehicle.
If you've been arrested on suspicion of a DUI, chances are you had to undergo a field sobriety test. You probably have questions about the types of tests administered and the bearing they have on your case. In this article, we'll give you a broad overview of everything you need to know about field sobriety tests.
Standardized and Non-Standardized Field Sobriety Tests
Law enforcement agents routinely administer field sobriety tests to motorists in order to determine if they are drunk or otherwise impaired while behind the wheel. They are usually given prior to a breathalyzer test. Field sobriety tests challenge a driver's balance, coordination, memory, motor skills and ability to focus.
If a police officer concludes, based on the results of these tests, that you were driving with an unlawful amount of drugs and/or alcohol in your system, it establishes probable cause to arrest you. The results of these tests are also admissible as evidence in court.
Standardized tests have been hand-picked and endorsed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The organization has identified three tests that supposedly accurately predict impairment. They are the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk-and-turn test, and the one-leg stand test.
Horizontal gaze nystagmus
Horizontal gaze nystagmus is an involuntary jerking reaction that happens to everyone when our eyes gaze peripherally. But this reaction intensifies when someone is impaired by alcohol. To determine if a person is intoxicated, an officer will pass a hand-held object - a pen, flashlight, etc. - in front of a motorist's face and instruct them to follow the object with their eyes. When doing so, officers will be looking for specific indicators of impairment, like distinct and exaggerated jerking, at what angle the jerking begins, and if your eyes aren't able to follow the object smoothly.
If several of these signs appear at once in your case, an officer has reason to assume you have a BAC of .10% or higher.
The Walk-and-Turn Test
To conduct this test, an officer will request that a driver place their hands at their sides and walk nine steps in a straight line in heel-to-toe fashion. Then the motorist will be asked to turn around and repeat these steps. During the test, the officer will be looking for several signs of impairment:
- Stepping out of line
- Turning improperly
- Taking an incorrect number of steps
- Raising your arms to stay balanced
- Losing balance while turning
- Not touching heel-to-toe
- Beginning the test before instructions are finished
NHTSA verifies that if two or more of the above signs are present during a test, there is a high likelihood that a motorist's BAC is beyond the legal limit (.08%).
One-Leg Stand Test
The one-leg stand test, also known as the “divided attention” test, requires a motorist to stand with one foot about six inches off the ground with their hands planted at their sides. In some circumstances, an officer may request you to count while doing so, while others may not. If a driver sways while attempting to balance, hops up and down, puts their foot down several times to steady themselves or otherwise struggles complete the test, an officer may be able to conclude they are impaired.
If a driver shows any signs of impairment during the above field sobriety tests, an officer will ask them to take a breathalyzer test or chemical test to confirm that they're BAC is above the legal limit.
Non-standardized field sobriety tests are also sometimes administered by officers. These include asking drivers to recite their ABCs, count on their fingers, touch their finger to their nose, or to recite numbers backwards.
The Reliability of Field Sobriety Tests
Although field sobriety tests are widely accepted as evidence in DUI cases, offenders and attorneys continue to pose a question: are field sobriety tests an accurate method of determining impairment? According to many researchers, the answer is no.
In an effort to establish a more uniform DUI arrest process, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NAFTA) requested that the Southern California Research Institute (SCRI) develop standardized tests that all police departments could easily adopt. Ultimately, the school concluded that the three standardized tests aforementioned were suitable for administering to assess impairment.
There was a section in a study submitted by the SCRI that recorded how effectively police officers could correctly gauge impairment. The results were shocking. The findings concluded that the officers correctly assessed an individual's impairment only 47% of the time. So, nearly half the time an officer could provide a false assessment of impairment and it would be admissible in court. The study attributed the disappointing results to the officers' failure to thoroughly follow directions. They did not score the tests properly, and repeatedly ignored evidence that indicated there were factors other than impairment that caused drivers to fail.
In response to this study, NAFTA ordered the institute to conduct tests again after all officers were trained again in issuing standardized tests. The studies showed improvement, but not enough for many experts and legal professionals to believe that these tests are valid methods of determining improvement.
Charged With A DUI In CA? Contact an Attorney
The results of your field sobriety tests are crucial to the outcome of your case. However, in the event that an officer strayed from regulatory processes and conducted these tests improperly, your charges could be reduced or even dismissed.
This is why it's important that you immediately contact an attorney. The sooner that a lawyer can start on your case, the sooner the attorney can start building a solid defense. A DUI is a serious charge that requires aggressive and experienced representation.
The DUI and criminal defense attorneys at Wilber Law Offices, P.C. have represented numerous clients who have been charged with misdemeanor or felony DUI charges and have helped get their sentences reduced or charges dismissed. They will help do the same for you. Contact us today online or by phone at 707-527-3451.