Improper Field Sobriety Tests and Procedures

by Andrew Mounier on October 29, 2013

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DUI testingOne of the most important principles upon which our legal system is based is that a person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty.  Accordingly, in the absence of a confession it is up to law enforcement officials to gather evidence and follow proper procedure to demonstrate that an accused person is in fact responsible of what he or she has been accused. When a police officer stops a driver because he or she suspects that the driver was operating the vehicle while intoxicated, the officer will typically conduct field sobriety tests.  However, if those tests are improperly administered, then they have little if any evidentiary value.

What is a field sobriety test?

A field sobriety test is a test that a law enforcement officer administers to a driver who is suspected of driving while intoxicated.  The test is conducted in the “field,” meaning that it is conducted at the location where the officer pulled the driver over, as opposed to being conducted at a police station.  Developed in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, field sobriety tests, also referred to as DWI sobriety tests, are designed to detect mental and emotional impairment.  Police officers use field sobriety tests to establish probable cause to make an arrest.

There are three standard field sobriety tests:  HGN Testing, Walk and Turn (WAT), and One Leg Stand (OLS).  In the HGN test, the law enforcement officer observes the eyes of the driver as the driver follows a slowly moving object such as a pen or small flashlight.  If the driver cannot follow the object or if there is jerking in the eyes at certain angles, the driver is likely impaired.  With the WAT test, the driver must take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along a straight line, turn and walk back.  The officer looks for the ability to attend and follow directions. In the OLS test, the driver is asked to balance him or herself on one leg for 30 seconds.

Administering field sobriety tests

Law enforcement officers receive special training and certification in how to correctly administer field sobriety tests.  Each test has a specific protocol for how it must be administered.  If the protocol is not followed, then an arrest based on that field sobriety test may be considered improper.

Proponents of the HGN test argue that science backs up its validity.  In order for the test’s results to be scientifically valid it must be administered correctly using the right timing and proper movement.  If the officer makes an error in administration then the HGN test cannot support an arrest.  The same reasoning applies to the WAT and OLS tests.  These tests must be performed by a trained officer according to established protocol.

Police officers should take care to follow proper procedure as police car video cameras can provide evidence as to how the tests were administered.  Any error may result in the test results being successfully challenged by a defense attorney.  However, a judge may determine that an improperly administered field sobriety test is not dispositive as to whether or not an arrest or charge was proper.  The court may consider other evidence such as a police officer’s testimony that he or she smelled alcohol on the breath of the driver.

Since even properly trained officers sometimes fail to properly administer field sobriety tests, is it sound advice to recommend that drivers should routinely decline such tests?

Andrew Mounier
Andrew Mounier is a Content Engineer and Author. He has worked in marketing for over a decade and finds his passion in bringing concepts to life for the world to enjoy. He is also an avid legal blogger and currently working on a book with his wife about social entrepreneurship. He is a true Socialpreneur and finds that his goal in life is to be an agent for positive social change through both his writing and business endeavors.
Andrew Mounier
Andrew Mounier

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