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Field Sobriety Tests: Potential Problems and Challenges

DUI Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs)

Field Sobriety tests are used by the police when they pull someone over and suspect that person was driving while intoxicated (DUI). These tests can be used to determine if the individual in question was intoxicated enough to be legally charged with anything. But these tests are unscientific and dependent on the police officer's perception of you and the circumstances.

Sobriety Field Tests

Police officers employ three standardized field sobriety tests to determine if someone is intoxicated or not during the course of a standard vehicle stop. These tests are known as the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), the walk-and-turn, and the one-leg stand.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test involves a form of eye drift or involuntarily eye jerking that will naturally occur when someone is gazing to the side. While this particular reaction is perfectly normal for anyone, the thing that is actually tested is exactly how severe the reaction to this kind of sideways gaze is. The severity of the reaction is intended to indicate whether or not the suspect is intoxicated.

There are three separate indications of alcoholic impairment an officer will search for, and these include:

  1. An inability to smoothly follow a moving object (e.g., an officer's finger or pencil) from one point to another with his or her eyes.
  2. Distinct jerking of the eyes at the maximum possible amount of deviation.
  3. A substantial amount of eye jerking when the eyes are within a minimum of 45 degrees of their center.

This test, if administered properly, may be able to detect a driver who is intoxicated, but it also indicates consumption of legal medications, like depressants, barbiturates, some inhalants, and medicines used to control or manage seizure. Persons who also have an eye condition or disease may not be able to perform the test appropriately.

Walk-and-Turn Test

During the walk-and-turn test, the suspect takes nine steps, touching heel to toe, along a straight line and then turns on a single foot and repeats it going the opposite direction. The police officer looks for eight indicators of impairment:

  1. Can the suspect balance while listening to the officer give instructions?
  2. Does the suspect begin walking before the instructions are finished?
  3. Does the suspect stop to regain balance while walking?
  4. Does the suspect fail to touch heel-to-toe?
  5. Does the suspect use his or her arms to balance?
  6. Does the suspect step off the line at any given time?
  7. Does the suspect take too many or too little steps?
  8. Does the suspect make an improper turn?

According to the manual, if a suspect commits two or more of the above eight indicators, then he or she fails the test. Unfortunately, there are numerous reasons why someone might fail this test, including but not limited to physical limitations and health problems. Even age or the time of day or location of the testing can have a detrimental impact on the suspect's ability to perform without slipping up one too many times.

One-Leg Stand Test

In the one-leg stand test, the police officer instructs the suspect to lift one foot roughly 6 inches above the ground and to begin counting by ones until the officer tells him or her to stop. The officer is supposed to time the suspect and to stop at thirty (30) seconds. During the test, the officer looks for four indicators of impairment:

  1. Did the suspect repeatedly sway while balancing?
  2. Did the suspect sue arms to maintain balance?
  3. Did the suspect put his or her foot down at any given time?
  4. Did the suspect hop at any given time to maintain balance?

If a suspect exhibits two or more indicators, then he or she fails the test. But again, there are other reasons that could cause someone to fail this test, including but not limited to physical limitations, health, or environmental conditions, like rain, sun glare, bright headlights in the dark of night, or simply being nervous around police officers whose reputation worsens by the day due to police misconduct constantly in the news.

What Do the Tests Mean if You Fail?

If an officer deems you failed one or all of these field sobriety tests, then it acts as probable cause and the officer can arrest and charge you with a DUI. Of course, in court, the state prosecutor will have a hard time prosecuting the case if all he or she has is a failed sobriety test.

Likely, after you fail, you will be asked to submit either a breath or blood sample. Usually, the police will request a breath sample, and depending on your acceptance or refusal, the officer will take the sample. If you refuse to submit to a test, the officer must seek a warrant to take a blood sample.

To note, you can refuse to submit to the field sobriety tests. The officer may use your refusal against you in court, but at the same time, there will be no video of you slipping up. Of course, that same video may work in your favor if (1) the officer failed to administer the tests properly; or (2) you did everything correctly and yet the officer still arrests you. It all depends on the unique facts and circumstances of your case.

Non-Standard Field Sobriety Tests

There are a number of non-standard field sobriety tests that an officer may administer. These include having the suspect stand with feet together and tip head backwards while counting how many fingers the officer has raised, reciting the alphabet, standing and leaning in such a way that the suspect gazes at the sky while holding arms to sides, or closing eyes and touching a finger to the tip of the nose. As non-standard tests unrecognized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an attorney can move the court to have these tests and their results suppressed.

Challenging Field Sobriety Test Results in Arizona

First and foremost, you are not required to submit to a field sobriety test if you do not want to do so. That said, it still will not stop an officer from charging you with a DUI and, alongside that, the officer can use your refusal as evidence against you in court. Most people, therefore, submit to the field sobriety test reluctantly.

If you submitted to a field sobriety test and failed, rest assured there is the possibility of contesting it. Of course, all cases and circumstances vary. Specifically, there are three scenarios where your attorney could challenge the results of the test.

  1. Reliability. There is considerable room for error regarding the reliability of the test results. Tests are only 81% to 91% accurate in determining if a person is intoxicated. That means up to 20% of the time, the results may be flawed.
  2. Administration of the Tests. Officers must adhere to strict guidelines set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If the officer failed to perform the tests properly or failed to perform the appropriate tests, then admission of the results into evidence can be challenged.
  3. Physical and Mental Condition. A certain physical or mental condition or complication can skew the results of any one of these tests. If the officer failed to ask about a physical or mental condition but a condition was present, the results can be challenged.


Contact an Accomplished DUI Attorney in Arizona

A DUI in Arizona can lead to serious penalties and collateral consequences. In fact, Arizona has some of the toughest laws on DUI. If you failed a field sobriety test, that can be used as evidence against you unless you have a skilled DUI attorney who can successfully challenge the results.

At The Hamp Law Offices, we take your defense seriously. We look at all the evidence and review all the circumstances thoroughly before determining a defense strategy. If it is applicable, we will aggressively challenge the field sobriety tests and their results. Contact us today at (928) 753-6868 to learn more about what our office can do for you.

Contact Us Today

If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, you may be feeling frightened, anxious, and uncertain of what your future holds. The competent and experienced attorneys at the Hamp Law Offices can help you during this difficult time. We are dedicated to fighting for the rights of our clients and providing excellent legal representation to those who have been accused of a crime. Contact our firm today to discuss your case.