If you are pulled over by a law enforcement officer who suspects you may be under the influence of alcohol, you will likely be asked to take one or more field sobriety tests. These are physical exercises designed to be easy to do when sober, but much more difficult when you are intoxicated. Should you take them, and if you fail, what happens next?
What Types of Field Sobriety Tests Exist?
There are three validated field sobriety tests that the majority of law enforcement officers are trained to give. These were developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to provide a consistent test among all suspected impaired drivers. These three tests are:
- Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus. The officer will ask you to follow a slowly moving object with your eyes, without moving your head. Nystagmus happens when the eyes involuntarily jerk as they move to follow an object. This effect is often especially noticeable when a person is under the influence of alcohol or other depressants.
- Walk and Turn. You will walk heel-to-toe in a straight line for at least nine steps. Then you'll be asked to turn around smoothly and walk back in the same manner. Officers watch to see if you listen to instructions, walk heel to toe, have trouble balancing, or count the right number of steps to take.
- One-Leg Stand. To complete this test, you'll stand with one foot a few inches off the ground while you count by thousands (for example, one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, etc.). Usually you'll have to balance for 30 seconds without swaying or hopping.
Are Field Sobriety Tests Reliable?
In many cases, an inability to perform the field sobriety tests do indicate some level of impairment. But relying solely on these tests to show impairment can be flawed. There are a few factors that can make the tests unreliable, such as:
- Conditions of the testing environment, like darkness or bad weather
- The individual's ability to balance or perform the test requirements when sober
- Pressure and anxiety that the individual might be feeling after being pulled over
- Difficulty understanding the requirements of the tests
- The law enforcement officer's interpretation of the individual's performance
Should You Take Field Sobriety Tests?
Your DUI attorney may recommend that you politely refuse to take field sobriety tests based on the chances of having an inaccurate assessment. Even if you have not had any alcohol or drugs, there is a chance that you may be improperly assessed due to the circumstances listed above.
For example, one study done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that trained officers determined that a group of individuals were intoxicated when about 47 percent of them weren't!
If you are detained or arrested by a law enforcement official who suspects you of driving under the influence, cooperate politely and call your DUI attorney as soon as you can.