DUI or DWI Field Sobriety Tests Broken Down

Chris Voltin Criminal Law, Traffic Law

DUI or DWI Standardized Field Sobriety Test: What is it?

Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of being suspected of DUI or DWI has likely been asked to perform a number of field sobriety tests by the police.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has created the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) Battery to assist officers in determining whether an individual is under the influence of alcohol.  The SFST Battery consists of three tests: (1) the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test; (2) the Walk and Turn Test; and (3) the One-Leg Stand Test.  While officers often use additional tests in their determinations for DUI or DWI, these are the three main tests approved by NHTSA.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

Nystagmus is the involuntary jerking of the eyes.  Nystagmus may occur as a result of alcohol consumption and is therefore a good indicator that a person may be under the influence of alcohol. Law enforcement officers therefore perform the nystagmus test to determine whether a suspect is under the influence of alcohol by screening an individual for an involuntary jerking of the eyes. The nystagmus test starts when an officer instructs an individual to remain still and not move their head while looking at a point such as a finger or pen.  The officer directs the suspect to follow the pen or finger with his or her eyes without moving their head.  Many times the officer will simultaneously shine a flashlight at an angle near the suspect’s eyes, without pointing the light directly into the suspect’s eyes, in order to make the eyes more visible.  The officer then moves his or her pen or finger laterally while observing the eyes make a similar lateral motion.  The officer looks to see whether the suspect’s eyes show an onset of nystagmus. Specifically, the officer looks to see whether the eyes start the involuntarily jerk prior to reaching a 45 degree angle.  If the officer observes the onset of nystagmus prior to a 45 degree angle then there is a strong likelihood that the suspect is under the influence of alcohol.

Walk and Turn Test

DUI, DWI, Walk and Turn Test

DUI/DWI Walk and Turn Test

The Walk and Turn Test is used to test both the suspect’s cognitive and physical impairment.  The officer provides the suspect with a series of instructions and observes how well the suspect follows the instructions to determine whether the suspect has cognitive impairment. Simultaneously, the officer observes how well the suspect is able to perform the actual test, thus testing physical impairment. The test begins when the law enforcement officer demonstrates the “starting position” and asks  the suspect to stand in the “starting position.” The officer often instructs the suspect to remain in the “starting position” until instructed to begin the test.  The officer then instructs and demonstrates the walk and turn test.  The officer directs the the suspect to: (1) walk in a straight line (usually along a marked highway line); (2) take nine steps forward while touching heel to toe on each step and counting each step out loud; (3) stop on the ninth step and make a series of small steps to turn around 180 degrees; and (4) take an additional nine steps back while touching heel to toe and counting out loud.  The officer then instructs the suspect to begin and observes the suspect perform all four components of the test.

One Leg-Stand Test

The One Leg-Stand Test is another test used to measure a suspect’s cognitive and physical impairment.  A suspect is instructed to stand in a starting position (very similar to the Walk and Turn Test) until the officer signals that it is time to begin the exam.  The officer then demonstrates the One Leg-Stand Test by elevating his foot approximately 6 inches off the ground, pointing his toe while standing on one leg, and counting out loud.  The officer then instructs the suspect to begin and observes the suspect perform the test. Officers will take note if a suspect sways while balancing, uses his or her arms to balance, hops on one foot, puts a foot down to balance, or makes an error while counting.  Often times, the officer will not give an end point to the test and will allow a suspect to stand on one leg for up to 30 seconds.

Am I Required to Take the Standardized Field Sobriety Test?

NO! A law enforcement officer will direct you to perform the tests, BUT YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO DO THESE TESTS! You can simply inform the officer that you do not wish to perform the tests and leave it at that. Slight missteps, or even failure to understand the instructions, can lead an officer to conclude that there is probable cause to place you under arrest for DUI or DWI.

Can the Attorneys at Goff Voltin, PLLC Help?

YES! The attorneys at Goff Voltin have handled numerous DUI or DWI cases in Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg/James City County, York County, Hampton, and in other courts throughout Hampton Roads.  Our attorneys prepare diligently for each case and aggressively pursue all possible defenses.  Call today for a free consultation!