Failed a Field Sobriety Test?

Field sobriety tests allegedly gauge a driver's coordination, balance, and ability to follow instructions.

The three most common "standardized" field sobriety tests are:

  • Walk and Turn (WAT)
  • One Leg Stand (OLS)
  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN)

In addition to the DUI tests, police officers may require drivers to perform additional non-standardized field sobriety tests—including the finger to nose test, reciting the alphabet, counting backward, and balancing tests. If you were arrested after performing a field sobriety test, it is important to contact an experienced DUI defense attorney as soon as possible. With our experience in this field, our team understands how to challenge the different types of field sobriety tests. Even when administered by the book, they are not 100% accurate.

Walk & Turn (WAT)

The Walk and Turn (WAT) is one of three standardized field sobriety test that a police officer can administer when a driver is pulled over for suspected drunk driving. The Walk and Turn is a divided attention test, which means that the suspect must listen and follow instructions while performing specific tasks. Their attention must be divided to perform the test correctly. Police officers administer WAT by having the suspect take nine steps, heel-to-toe in one direction along a straight line. The suspect must then turn on one foot and return in the same manner.

Specific indicators the officer will look for in grading the suspect's performance on the WAT test:

  • Difficulty maintaining balance while the officer is giving instructions;
  • Beginning the test before the officer finishes giving instructions;
  • Stopping while walking to regain balance;
  • Failing to touch heel to toe;
  • Failing to walk in a straight line;
  • Using the arms to maintain balance;
  • Making an improper turn; and
  • Taking more or less than nine steps in each direction

There are a number of issues that may negatively impact a suspect’s ability to perform a Walk and Turn test, so there are different defenses that can be utilized to challenge the evidence gathered.

One-Leg Stand Test

The One-Leg Stand (OLS) is one of the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests developed based on research conducted by the Southern California Research Institute and sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The One-Leg Stand is also a divided attention test. The subject must listen to and understand instructions and perform physical movements. The arresting officer will instruct the subject to stand on one foot, with the other approximately six inches off the ground. The subject will need to count out loud by the thousands (i.e. “one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three…”) until instructed to stop. The test should last for 30 seconds.

The officer will look for the following behavior that may indicate impairment:

  • Swaying
  • Using the arms to maintain balance
  • Hoping to maintain balance
  • Putting the foot down

According to NHTSA research, 83% of subjects who exhibit two or more of the above indicators will have an unlawful blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or greater. That leaves 17% of people who are false positives—statistically, not necessarily a good test.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test is a Standardized Field Sobriety Test that involves having a suspected drunk driver follow an object or light with the eyes to determine whether the eyes jerk involuntarily, as this can be a sign of intoxication.

Under normal circumstances, the eye jerks only at high peripheral angles. When a person has a significant amount of alcohol in his or her system, the jerking may occur when the eyes try to track a moving object. The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is tested by having the subject slowly follow an object or light—such as a pen, finger or small flashlight, with the eyes.

The person administering the test will look for the following indicators of failure:

  • The eye cannot smoothly follow the moving object
  • Significant jerking is present in the eye when it is at maximum deviation
  • The jerking begins when the eye is within 45 degrees of center

Non-Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

Although Standardized Field Sobriety Tests are in place to offer police officers more accurate means of determining intoxication in the event that they suspect drunk driving, there are other non-standardized field sobriety tests that may be administered after a driver is pulled over. In these cases, it is important to remember that you have the right to politely refuse these tests.

Other Forms of Field Sobriety Tests

If you choose to perform any field sobriety tests, the officer’s analysis of your performance may be used as evidence of your intoxication in court. Fortunately, an experienced DUI attorney can help you challenge the outcome of standardized and non-standardized field sobriety tests. These must be administered and graded in a specific way. Even when they are administered in accordance with standard procedure, they are not always accurate. A skilled lawyer may be able to effectively challenge their validity to positively impact your case.

The following are examples of other field sobriety tests that may be administered:

  • Recite the alphabet or a part of the alphabet
  • Recite the alphabet backward
  • Count backward
  • Stand with feet together while tipping the head backward
  • Count the number of fingers raised by the officer
  • Finger-to-nose test: close the eyes and touch the nose with the finger
  • Hand-pat test: extend a hand, palm, upward. Place the other hand on top of the first hand, palm downward. Rotate the upper hand and pat the lower hand with the front and then the back of the hand.

The Inaccuracy of Field Sobriety Testing

We’ve established that field sobriety tests are common, but are they accurate? Can they really prove that a driver is under the influence? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), oversaw research that resulted in the development of Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. They found that the horizontal gaze nystagmus had a 77% accuracy rate, the walk and turn a 68% accuracy rate, and the one-leg stand a 65% accuracy rate—and when all three were used together, they were correct only 82% of the time. These statistics show that field sobriety tests are not sufficient evidence to charge a driver with a DUI offense.

There are a few issues that add to the inaccuracy of these tests:

  • The use of non-standardized field sobriety tests;
  • Improper instructions by the officer administering the test;
  • Improper grading of a driver’s performance on a test or tests;
  • Improperly administered tests; and
  • Factors not related to alcohol that influence a driver’s performance

Find out how we can challenge field sobriety tests to dismiss the evidence against you. With our experience and our understanding of these tests, we can build an aggressive defense strategy. Contact our Tampa DUI attorneys today for a free case review: (813) 321-7323!

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At Thomas & Paulk, one of our primary focuses is on the defense of DUI charges. In fact, we are recognized throughout the Tampa area as one of the premier DUI defense law firms. Our team is well-versed in this area of the law and has a wide-expanse of experience in helping our clients fight against such charges.

It doesn’t matter if this is your first offense or your third, you can count on our firm to protect your legal rights. Often, our defense starts with recounting with you how the police officer came to stop you in the first place and how he or she came to believe you may be under the influence of alcohol. If the stop was illegal, or the tests were improperly administered, we may be able to argue for the dismissal of that evidence in court, helping your chances of a dropped charge.

If you would like to learn more about how our team can help, contact us today.

  • If you're arrested for DUI, you only have 10 days to schedule a DMV hearing where you can fight to save your license.

  • A blood alcohol reading of 0.15% or more can warrant an aggravated DUI charge with harsher penalties.

  • Each year, Hillsborough County issues around 4,000 DUI citations. Out of these, more than 3,000 are found guilty.

  • Per Florida's zero-tolerance policy, anyone under the age of 21 who tests positive for any measurable blood alcohol can be charged with DUI.

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