Field Sobriety Tests

In many states, if you are pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence, law enforcement officers may ask you to complete field sobriety tests in order to help ascertain whether you might be drunk. These tests are typically given by police when they have a strong reason to believe that a driver is intoxicated and want to confirm that this is the case. In most states, they are voluntary, and you have a right to refuse to participate. Indeed, since the evidence obtained from these tests will likely only be used against you in DUI proceedings, many criminal defense lawyers advise against completing them.

What Are Field Sobriety Tests?

Field sobriety tests are a series of voluntary tests that a driver is asked to complete that demonstrate whether a driver is sober or not. The tests are by nature subjective, which means that it is up to the officer to determine whether you passed or not based on your performance or other factors.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration states that officers can use three specific tests on drivers. These are the walk and turn, the one leg stand, and the gaze tests. In the walk and turn test, a driver is asked to walk heel to toe in a straight line for nine steps and then turn around and complete the same walk for nine steps back to the original location. In the one leg stand test, the driver must lift one leg six inches off the ground and stand on the other leg for a specified duration of time, often 30 seconds or longer, without losing balance. In the gaze test, the officer will hold an object a foot or so in front of the driver and ask the driver to follow the object with his or her gaze. If the driver is unable to follow the path of the object, this is indicative of drunkenness.

Field sobriety tests are only somewhat reliable. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, they successfully identify drunken drivers in two-thirds to three-fourths of all DUI cases. This means that for a good number of drivers, the field sobriety tests may suggest that they are drunk even if they are not. This is often due to a variety of factors, including nervousness, medications the driver may be using, and pre-existing difficulties with balance.

Refusing a Field Sobriety Test

Field sobriety tests are voluntary, and completion of the tests is not required under the law. If asked to complete a field sobriety test, a driver may politely decline to do so or may ask to speak with his or her attorney.  While the driver will not face legal penalties for declining to participate, it is important to understand that this does not mean that the driver will simply be let go. In most instances, if a driver refuses a field sobriety test, he or she will be asked to undertake a chemical test to determine his or her blood alcohol level, such as a breathalyzer test or a blood test.  The driver may even be taken to the police station or jail for a short period of time while these tests are conducted. Unlike field sobriety tests, refusing to perform a breathalyzer test or provide a blood sample can have very serious consequences.