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What are field sobriety tests and do I need to take them?

You are driving home after a night out with friends and hear police sirens coming up behind you. Your heart starts pounding as you pull over to the side of the road. The officer approaches your vehicle and questions start flying through your mind. Did I have one too many drinks? What should I tell the police? Am I going to face a DWI charge?

You should be polite to the police officer during the course of the stop, but that does not mean you have to answer all their questions or do everything he or she requests of you.

Three types of field sobriety tests

If an officer suspects you of impaired driving, one of the first things he or she may request that you do is take a field sobriety test. There are three basic types of sobriety tests approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

  • Horizonatal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN): The officer asks the subject to follow a slow moving object (like a pen) as it moves horizontally. The officer is looking if the eyes can follow the object smoothly or if they start to jerk.
  • Walk-and-Turn: The officer asks the subject to take nine steps in a straight line, heel-to-toe, and turn and walk the opposite direction in the same manner. This is a divided attention test. The officer is observing if a person can follow instructions while performing a physical exercise. For example, is the subject beginning before the instructions are completed, taking an incorrect number of steps, or having difficulty maintaining balance.
  • One-Leg Stand: The officer asks the subject to hold one foot about six inches off the ground while counting aloud by thousands. This is another divided attention test. The officer is observing if the subject remains balanced, sways or uses arms to maintain balance, or puts his or her foot down before told to do so.

Should you take these tests if asked?

As you may guess by the descriptions, these tests are largely subjective with varying degrees of accuracy. If you have not been drinking, it probably does not hurt to agree to take these tests. Even completely sober individuals, however, have performed poorly on the tests under certain circumstances.

If you feel you may be intoxicated, the question is a bit more complicated. In many cases it may be wise to refuse them because the results can be used against you in court. A variety of factors (aside from intoxication) may cause you to perform poorly including your physical condition and errors in the administration of the test.

Even if you choose to take the field sobriety tests, an attorney can show the results are not reliable if the tests were conducted improperly, or the officer administering them was not appropriately trained.

Field sobriety tests are only one element of a DWI case that may be challenged. If you have been charged with a DWI consult with an attorney who can protect your rights and advocate for your interests.

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