When police suspect a driver is impaired by drugs or alcohol, they typically administer field sobriety tests. These tests are supposed to help the officer determine whether you are impaired for purpose of driving. These “field sobriety tests” (FSTs) can be helpful but poor performance could also be due to other factors like age, physical fitness, health conditions, environmental conditions, stress, or issues in the administration of the test. While there are objective aspects of FSTs, it is the subjective decision of the officer to decide if you pass or appear to be impaired. Breath tests can provide alcohol levels and the blood tests can provide both alcohol and drug levels. FSTs (field sobriety tests) are used to supplement other evidence in the case indicating impairment.
What are they looking for, anyway?
Field sobriety tests, or FSTs, usually consist of three different tasks that help assess physical and mental impairment relevant to driving a vehicle. There can also be other tests besides the three listed below.
- Observing Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: Police will check drivers’ eyes as they follow a moving object, usually the officer’s pen. When doing this, police are looking for how smoothly they can track the object and an involuntary jerking that becomes more exaggerated with more alcohol in your system.
- Walk-and-turn test: This test involves drivers listening to instructions, walking in a straight line, taking a specific number of steps, touching your heel to your toe on each step and then turning and walking back in the opposite direction. Police are looking for several indicators of impairment, including not following directions, raising your arms for balance, stepping off the line, not touching heel to toe on each step, side stepping on the turn, and incorrectly counting steps.
- Standing on one leg: To complete this test, drivers must stand on one leg and count out loud usually for 30 seconds or until told to stop. Police watch for things like not following instructions, loss of balance, swaying, hopping, toe tapping or using your arms for balance
This is the first time the officer has observed you so he has no “standardized reference” to compare to see how well you could do the test without alcohol or drugs in your system. That can make it more difficult especially in cases where the impairment may be minor or related to something else. In addition to field sobriety tests, officers also take into consideration their other observations including manner of driving, fumbling for you license, inability to stand without leaning on the vehicle, odor of alcohol, blood shot eyes and slurred speech. Like field sobriety tests, there can be other explanations for these things, but it is the totality of observations, information and testing that goes into the officers decision to arrest.
What does failure look like?
Often people taking the FSTs don’t realize all the little things involved in FSTs that the officer is using to determine impairment. It’s a judgment call by the officer taking into account the factors the Officer is aware of in each individual situation. These field sobriety tests are not the only criteria that the officer uses but can be one factor along with others that are involved when you are stopped or contacted by law enforcement that can result in your arrest for DUI. Detentions, arrest, FSTs, officer’s observations, and chemical tests all play an important part in the defending DUI case and require carefully reviewing each element of a traffic stop resulting in DUI charges in order to get the best possible resolution in the case.