Did you Bring Your Athletic Shoes to the Sobriety Test?

The three standardized field sobriety tests are the one-leg-stand, the walk-and-turn, and the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (the eye test). Law enforcement has convinced the public that these tests have the aura and certainty of science. That is far from the truth. The truth is these tests are difficult for people to perform sober.

You are at a huge disadvantage if you don’t have a lawyer who knows the tests backwards and forwards. Your lawyer needs to know them better than the police officer. Challenging them is a huge part winning your case. The video of you performing these tests is a huge piece of the evidence that will be presented against you. But not the only piece. For articles on blood and breath testing, click here, here, here, and here.

A Brief Origin of Field Sobriety Tests and DWI

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) researched and popularized the field sobriety tests back in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, drinking and driving was increasingly being seen as a serious threat to safety by the public.

Field sobriety tests soon became a crucial part of the DWI Process. Although the tests were politically popular, they were not scientifically sound. The NHTSA’s initial research into the accuracy of the field sobriety tests back in 1975 showed flaws and inconsistencies. In determining a person’s BAC to be at or above 0.10%, the eye test was 77% accurate. The walk and turn was 68% accurate. The One Leg Stand was 65%. These tests were done in full compliance with the NHTSA standards. Not very reliable. Not very scientific. And not very convincing.

Please Step Out of Your Car, Madam… and Perform Gymnastics

The field sobriety tests more accurately measure your agility, balance, and calm resolve under pressure not to be rattled or intimidated. With an arrest hanging over you, the bright lights of the squad car, the unnerving presence of the officer can be truly intense. Moreover, it is probably night. The wind may be blowing. It may be cold. Lights of passing cars may be blinding. You may not be wearing your gymnastic shoes, but instead boots or thick-soled shoes unsuited for balancing. The truth is that you can fail all 6 clues of the eye test, all 8 clues of the walk-and-turn, and all 4 clues of the one-leg-stand and be completely sober.

Officers Can and Do Make Mistakes Administering the Tests

One study has shown that officers screw up the eye test 95% of the time.[1] That is breathtaking. The eye test is frustrating because even if there is a video, you can’t see your eyes to see if you’ve passed. This also prevents a jury from making an independent evaluation. Furthermore, there are more than 35 other causes of nystagmus which can cause you to fail the eye test. Including fatigue and excessive caffeine. Police officers are not trained to distinguish among the various causes.

Field Sobriety Tests are Bad Indicators of Intoxication

For the walk-and-turn, officers do not always provide a designated straight line, even though the manual requires them to do so. Weather conditions play a decisive role in walk-and-turn performance. Also, age, weight, and kind of shoes or boots can cause you to “fail” the test. I had a client once who was driving home from work when she got pulled over. She was wearing knee-high black boots with thick heels. The dashcam video showed the officer made her walk in a straight line wearing those big boots.

For the one-leg-stand, the manual indicates that the officer should provide a hard, reasonably dry, level surface. This is not always possible depending on the terrain, and police officers will make people try to balance on inclines 

[1] J. L. Booker, ‘‘The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test: Fraudulent Science in the American Courts,’’ Science & Justice, Vol 44, p 133–139 (2004)