Why Field Sobriety Tests Are Far From Perfect in DUI

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(Newswire.net — September 20, 2023) — When the blue lights flash and a field sobriety test is requested, many believe it’s a concrete assessment of one’s sobriety. But are these tests as accurate as they seem? We’re going to dive into the nuanced world of on-the-spot sobriety assessments.

What Are Field Sobriety Tests?

A field sobriety test is a test used by law enforcement to aid in determining whether or not a driver is impaired. There are a variety of different tests police officers have available at their disposal, but each is used to assess factors like coordination, balance, and the ability to divide attention between more than one task.

The three most common tests are:

  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus. The term “horizontal gaze nystagmus” refers to the involuntary jerking of the eyeballs, which happens when the eyes rotate at high angles. When someone has been drinking, the jerking of the eyes becomes more exaggerated.
  • Walk-and-Turn Test. This is one of the more popular tests. “For the walk-and-turn test, the officer asks the driver to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along a straight line, turn on one foot, and return nine steps in the opposite direction. During the test, the officer looks for seven indicators of impairment,” VeryWellMind explains. These signs of impairment may include beginning before instructions are finished; failure to keep balance; not touching heel-to-toe; losing balance while turning; pausing to regain balance; and using arms to balance.
  • One-Leg Stand Test. For this test, the officer asks the driver to stand with one foot six inches off the ground and count for 30 seconds. The officer looks for indicators that the individual is inebriated, including hopping to maintain balance, putting the foot down, using arms to balance, and/or swaying.

Police officers on the scene will also look for signs of intoxication, such as feelings of confusion, lethargy, impaired walking, becoming very talkative or euphoric, lack of inhibition, slurred speech, and/or vomiting.

Law enforcement uses field sobriety tests because they’re somewhat effective in validating legal intoxication in drivers who are suspected of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. However, there’s one tiny little problem: They’re wrong nearly one-third of the time. That means nearly one out of three field sobriety tests are inaccurate and/or misleading.

Where Field Sobriety Tests Can Go Wrong

If as many as 35 percent of field sobriety is not accurate, where do they go wrong? Let’s explore this in further detail.

1. Used to Confirm an Initial Bias

When a police officer gets something on their mind, it’s difficult to shake that initial idea. (And that’s not a police problem – that’s a human problem. We all have a tendency to prove our initial feelings about something, rather than disprove.)

As attorney Rowdy G. Williams puts it, “Law enforcement officers are trying their best to keep the roads safe. But they’re far from perfect. And, sometimes, they use field sobriety tests to confirm their initial suspicions at all costs, rather than exclude people who aren’t guilty of anything.”

If a police officer saw you swerve off the road for a moment, they might have thought you were driving under the influence. But what they didn’t see was that you were swerving to avoid some roadkill. Then they use that initial suspicion to perform a field sobriety test, which isn’t accurate to begin with. Do you see where this gets sticky?

2. Subjective Analysis

Most field sobriety tests are subjective. One officer might see something in the walk-and-turn test that another officer does not, or vice versa. The problem is that these subjective analyses often serve as the bedrock for DUI cases.

3. Nervousness and Anxiety

The pressure of being pulled over by law enforcement can induce nervousness and anxiety in even sober individuals. Unfortunately, these emotions can mirror the behaviors that officers associate with intoxication during field sobriety tests.

Factors such as shaky limbs, increased heart rate, and difficulty following instructions might be attributed to nervousness rather than actual impairment. This blurring of lines between nervousness and intoxication underscores the need for caution when interpreting test results.

4. Medical Conditions or Physical Limitations

Field sobriety tests often involve physical coordination and balance, which can be compromised by various medical conditions or physical limitations. Individuals with inner ear issues, neurological disorders, or musculoskeletal problems may struggle to perform tasks like the one-leg stand or walk-and-turn test, even when sober. These conditions can lead to inaccurately perceived signs of intoxication, potentially resulting in wrongful accusations.

Don’t Settle for a DUI Charge

Don’t let a DUI conviction wreak havoc on your life. If you’ve been charged with a DUI after a questionable field sobriety test or other confusing circumstances, please contact a DUI attorney to see what your options are. These tests are not perfect, and you deserve the right to challenge their validity!