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About Field Sobriety Tests

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Between the years of 2003 and 2012, more than 8,000 people lost their lives on Florida roadways due to alcohol-related crashes, according to state information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of deaths from alcohol-impaired drivers in Florida was higher than the national average, in a nation in which one-third of all fatal crashes involve at least one alcohol-impaired driver. To combat the number of drunk driving accidents and fatalities over the years, Florida—like other states—has instituted laws that provide strict consequences to those who are found to be driving over the national legal limit of .08 percent blood or breath alcohol content.

Law enforcement officers use field sobriety tests to develop probable cause to arrest someone for suspected DUI. Do you know what these tests involve or how accurate they are? Are you legally required to undergo a field sobriety test, and are you at risk of losing your license if you refuse? Read on for more information.

What Are Field Sobriety Tests?

Police officers have always had methods to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists to suspect that a driver has been drinking. These methods generally involve the driver getting out of his or her vehicle and performing simple tasks to test balance, the ability of the eyes to track, or the ability to complete a series of tasks. However, in the late 1970s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began studying various field sobriety tests to come up with three tests that—when performed under strict protocols—were the most accurate to determine whether a person is impaired or not. The three “standardized” tests approved by the NHTSA include:

  • One-leg stand test: After explaining and demonstrating how to perform the test, the officer typically asks if you understand the directions before having you perform it. During the test, you’re asked to hold one foot parallel and approximately six inches off the ground. You must count slowly while balanced on one leg until instructed to stop. While the test is taking place, the officer is usually checking for possible signs of impairment, such as swaying, using your arms for balance, hopping, or putting your foot down. If the officer detects at least two of these indicators, he or she can arrest you for probable cause of drunken driving.
  • Walk-and-turn test: As with the one-leg stand test, officers administering the walk-and-turn test must first explain and demonstrate the test and ensure that you understand the instructions before asking you to perform it. This test involves standing heel-to-toe with your arms to your side during the instructions and then taking nine heel-to-toe steps on a real or imaginary line, pivoting, and taking nine steps back. Indications of impairment include an inability to balance while the instructions are being given, starting the test before the instructions are complete, stopping while walking, not walking heel to toe, stepping off the line, using arms for balance, not turning correctly, or not taking the required number of steps.
  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus test: Nystagmus refers to the involuntary jerking movement of the eyes. When a person is impaired by alcohol, this jerking movement becomes more pronounced. In this test, an officer will hold a small object 12 to 15 inches from your face and ask you to track the object with your eyes without moving your head. Possible indications of intoxication include the inability to smoothly track the object with your eyes, nystagmus when the eyes are at a 45-degree angle, and involuntary jerking of the eyes within four seconds when the object is all the way to the side.

Other non-standard field sobriety tests that law enforcement officers may use to detect impairment include:

  • Vertical gaze nystagmus test
  • Romberg balance test
  • Finger-to-nose test
  • Finger-count test
  • Hand pat test
  • ABC test
  • Numbers backward test

Non-standard tests, while not validated by the NHTSA and not considered as accurate as the three standard tests, are often used in states where standard tests are inadmissible for anything but establishing probable cause for arrest.

Will I Lose My License if I Refuse to Perform One?

Florida’s implied consent law covers breath analyzer tests used to determine if a person has alcohol on his or her breath. The penalty for refusing to take a breath test is a one-year suspension of your driver’s license. However, the law does not specifically mention any consequences for refusing to take the field sobriety tests. If you refuse, an officer will still likely arrest you for suspicion of DUI, but you will not automatically lose your license for that refusal.

Why Would an Individual Fail the Tests Other Than Alcohol Impairment?

There are several reasons beyond alcohol impairment that would cause an individual to fail these tests. Defendants have waged successful legal challenges against all standard field sobriety tests. Here is a look at some of the reasons why these tests could indicate impairment in a driver who has not been drinking:

  • One-leg stand test: Being over the age of 65, having middle ear or back problems, or being at least 50 pounds overweight can impact a person’s balance and may give a “false positive” on this test.
  • Walk-and-turn test: The NHTSA only gives this test a 66 percent accuracy rating, even if administered properly. Physical or mental issues can cause inaccuracies in this test.
  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus test: The test, even when administered correctly, only has a 77 percent accuracy rate. Certain neurological, medical, or eye conditions can cause this test to render a false positive.

An experienced criminal defense attorney will examine the field sobriety tests that officers used in your case to determine if officers performed the tests accurately. Your attorney will also check to see if you have any medical conditions that could have produced similar results on these tests to responses seen in intoxicated individuals. If the tests were administered improperly or yielded inaccurate results in your situation, it could be a reason to dismiss the DUI charges against you.

If you were arrested for DUI, speak to an attorney about your field sobriety test results as soon as you can.

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