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HOW RELIABLE ARE FIELD SOBRIETY TESTS?
Photo Credit: http://www.newyorker.com/images/2013/06
What is a Field Sobriety Test?
Field sobriety tests are used to enforce DUI laws and usually precede Breathalyzer tests. A police officer typically performs a three-part field sobriety test after a traffic stop where there is suspicion that the motorist may be drunk or otherwise impaired. These tests allow an officer to observe a suspect’s balance, physical ability, attention level, or other factors that the officer may use to determine whether the suspect is driving under the influence.
Officers record the suspect’s performance on a field sobriety test to be used as evidence in DUI cases; such tests generally have been upheld on appeal. The purpose of all sobriety tests is to ensure that a police officer has probable cause to arrest someone for driving under the influence.
The Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) endorsed by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) consists of the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), walk-and-turn (WAT) and one-leg stand (OLS):
- One-Leg Stand: Suspects are asked to stand with one foot about six inches off the ground and count for 30 seconds. Swaying while balancing, using arms to balance, hopping or putting the foot down indicate possible impairment.
- Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus: This term refers to the involuntary jerking of the eye that occurs naturally when the eye gazes to the side. But this jerking (or nystagmus) is exaggerated when someone is impaired by alcohol. Officers look for three indicators of impairment in each eye: inability to follow a moving object smoothly; distinct eye jerking when eye is at maximum deviation; and eye-jerking within 45 degrees of center.
- Walk and Turn: The purpose of this test, determined to be easily done by most unimpaired people, tests the suspect’s ability to complete tasks with divided attention. This is administered by requiring the suspect to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along a straight line; turn on one foot; and then return in the same manner in the opposite direction.
- Other, non-standardized field sobriety tests may include one or more of the following: standing with feet together and tipping the head backwards; counting the number of fingers an officer raises; reciting the alphabet; counting backwards; standing and leaning back to look up at the sky while holding arms to the side; or closing the eyes and touching nose with finger.
What is the Purpose of FST?
When an officer suspects a driver of being in violation of the law—with a blood alcohol level that’s higher than the legal limit—the driver will be asked to step out of the car to take a field sobriety test. The purpose of this is to have a standard method for gathering evidence to allow the officer to administer a blood or breath test to determine the driver’s blood alcohol level.
The field sobriety test is a way of determining if the driver really is impaired. Failing a field sobriety test gives the officer probable cause to believe the driver can’t safely drive, so then a blood or breath test can be legally given to establish that the driver is over the legal limit.
Are FST Accurate?
The scientific notion behind the FST is constantly questioned by defense attorneys, and with good reason. Because, as “scientifically” proven they are to show someone’s likeliness of inebriation, they also depend entirely on the police officer’s subjective perception. The same, tired, overworked police officer—who’s heard every excuse in the book and now resents everyone driving late at night.
- Spurgeon Cole of Clemson University decided to do an experiment to see how good police officers were at distinguishing someone who is under the legal limit from someone who is too drunk to drive, based entirely on watching them perform field sobriety tests. 14 police officers were shown videotapes of 21 subjects taking six common field sobriety tests and were asked to decide which “had too much to drink and drive.” On average, the police officers determined that 46% of the subjects were legally intoxicated. So how did they do? Not well, especially considering that not a single subject had consumed alcohol. In other words, the blood alcohol level of every subject was .00%—as sober as you can get. The officers might as well have guessed randomly. This is a particularly disquieting result considering that, if the officers and pulled these individuals over, they would have arrested an innocent person half of the time. (Cole and Nowaczyk, “Field Sobriety Tests: Are they Designed for Failure?” 79 Perceptual and Motor Skills Journal 99, 1994.)
Okay, but are the tests scientific, themselves? In the late 1970’s the federal government gave a grant to a research group called the Southern California Research Institute (SCRI) to come up with a series of field sobriety tests that were more reliable that the ones being used at the time. The tests that the group eventually came up with, by their own admission, were still far from perfect. The groups own data showed that roughly half of subjects tested would have been arrested, despite their BAC being under the legal limit. Unsatisfied with these results, the federal government gave SCRI another crack at it. In 1981 they came up with some better data. This time roughly 30% of subjects would have been falsely arrested. Put another way, field sobriety tests made subjects appear more intoxicated that they actually were in the minds of the police officers.
What Do I Do?
This is the easiest part. DO you research on good criminal defense attorneys, and hire one that knows how to argue these points while using previous court rulings and legal standards.