Skip to main content

Field Sobriety Tests And DUI

When a police officer pulls over a driver suspected of drunk driving, the officer has several tests at his or her disposal to determine whether the driver is impaired. Among the most popular methods of making this determination is the administration of field sobriety tests (FSTs), which are notorious for being some of the least accurate and reliable ways to determine a driver’s level of impairment. Motorists should understand their rights and obligations when it comes to encountering police officers during DUI stops and consenting to or refusing FSTs. The dedicated attorneys at Driving Defense Law provide comprehensive legal representation for clients facing DUI (driving under the influence) charges throughout the state of Virginia, including the cities of Norfolk, Hampton, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, and Chesapeake. If you have been arrested for or charged with DUI after refusing or failing a field sobriety test, consider calling (757) 929-0335 today to schedule a free consultation and discuss your options for defense. 

What Are Field Sobriety Tests? 

A field sobriety test (FST) is a test administered by a police officer during a DUI stop to evaluate a suspected drunk driver’s level of impairment, both physical and mental. These tests are usually performed on the side of the road (hence the name “field”) and are used to help law enforcement decide whether to arrest the driver. In every test, it is up to the officer to decide whether a person has passed or failed the test. Field sobriety tests are usually divided into three parts, according to American Addiction Centers, Inc. Below is an overview of each part, including what officers are looking for during these tests. 

The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test (HGN) is usually administered first and is used to measure nystagmus in a driver’s eyes. During this test, the officer observes the involuntary jerking of the eyeballs by asking the driver to follow the officer’s finger or pen using only his or her eyes. Nystagmus happens when the eyes are rotated peripherally in sober individuals or at any angle when in intoxicated individuals. Signs of impairment during the horizontal gaze nystagmus test include a pronounced jerking movement and uneven movement of the eyes.  

The Walk-and-Turn Test

The walk-and-turn test requires the individual suspected of DUI to take nine steps in a straight line. To perform this test, the driver is instructed to walk heel-to-toe, which means that the heel of one foot must touch the toe of the other foot with each step. After taking nine steps in this manner, the driver must turn on one foot and take nine steps back, still following the heel-to-toe requirements. A person can fail the walk-and-turn test by starting before the officer finishes giving instructions, stepping away from the line, failing to walk heel-to-toe, excessively using arms for balance, or taking more or less than nine steps. 

The One-Leg Stand Test

During the one-leg stand test, the person suspected of drunk driving is instructed to hold one foot about six inches off the ground and maintain balance for 30 seconds. While doing so, the person must count out loud in thousands. Drivers can fail this test by putting their foot down, hopping to regain balance, swaying their arms to control their balance, stopping the count, or forgetting the number they are on. 

Can You Refuse a Field Sobriety Test?

When a police officer stops a driver for suspected DUI, the officer may try to convince the driver to comply with a request to take a field sobriety test. However, the truth is that drivers are not legally required to take field sobriety tests, even though police officers often make it seem as if drivers do not have a choice. By submitting to a field sobriety test, a driver may essentially be helping the police officer build a case for an arrest. Submitting may not work in a driver’s favor, especially considering that FSTs are supremely subjective and notoriously inaccurate, and even sober persons can fail them. 

Even if you pass all three parts of the test, an officer still has the discretion to make an arrest if he or she suspects that you are, in fact, intoxicated and not fit to drive. In most states, individuals have a right to refuse a field sobriety test without facing any immediate legal repercussions. Virginia is one of those states, as FSTs are considered completely voluntary within the Commonwealth. However, if you refuse these tests, the court may consider your refusal to take them in your DUI case. 

Why Do Cops Do Field Sobriety Tests Instead of Breathalyzers? 

If FSTs are so inaccurate and drivers can refuse them, why do cops administer these tests in the first place? Why not simply use a breathalyzer instead? In reality, the accuracy of both field sobriety tests and breathalyzers is rather questionable, even though these tests function differently in a number of ways.

  • Breathalyzer: Police officers often rely on breathalyzers as a tool to measure blood alcohol content (BAC), which is essentially the concentration of alcohol in a driver’s blood at the time the test is administered. The legal limit for drivers aged 21 and older is set at 0.08%, according to the state’s Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Even though breathalyzers may be an effective tool, the results do not always hold up in court due to the potential for errors in administration, calibration issues, inadequate training, the suspect’s medical conditions, and other problems that may produce a false positive. 
  • Field sobriety test: FSTs, on the other hand, provide law enforcement with subjective observations that can (a) help them make decisions regarding the suspect’s level of intoxication before making an arrest and (b) be used as evidence during DUI proceedings against the driver. A field sobriety test allows the officer to assess the driver’s physical and mental impairment beyond just the concentration of alcohol in his or her blood. 

Sometimes, police officers do not choose between a breathalyzer and a field sobriety test. Rather, they administer both to get more comprehensive information about the driver’s condition, which aids them in making a decision regarding whether to arrest the individual for DUI. Regardless of whether your DUI arrest is based on the results of a breathalyzer or a law enforcement officer’s observations during a field sobriety test, the defense team at Driving Defense Law may be able to help you challenge the evidence presented and organize an aggressive legal strategy in your defense.

Seek Reliable Legal Advice at Driving Defense Law

If you are facing DUI charges after failing field sobriety tests, you may believe that the results of the tests did not accurately reflect your level of impairment. An attorney may be able to explain the legal options available to you when it comes to challenging the results of FSTs or fighting DUI charges after a refusal to take a field sobriety test. To discuss your case with an experienced DUI defense lawyer, consider contacting the team at Driving Defense Law by calling (757) 929-0335 to request a free case review.