Win your DUI by attacking the field sobriety tests

What are the field sobriety tests?

The Standardized Field Sobriety Test is actually 3 tests that police officers ask motorists to perform during a DUI traffic stop to determine if a driver is impaired. The 3 tests are commonly known as the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk-and-turn test, and the one-leg stand test.   The point of the field sobriety test is to give the police officer a tool in helping build a case in a DUI investigation. The police will administer the field sobriety tests in a DUI stop. If the motorist received too many clues, then they may be deemed to have failed the test. The tests are often used in a DUI case not only to establish probable cause but also to provide evidence that the defendant was incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle.

Attacking the field sobriety test

A top DUI defense attorney will always look to challenge the field sobriety test in a DUI or refusal case.  The attorney can attack the test on many different levels and can attack for different reasons.

In Rhode Island, field sobriety tests aren't always accurate indicators of alcohol impairment. The three tests' accuracy is only between 65 – 77% accurate at detecting impairment. This does not include the fact that the tests are not regularly administered precisely and scored properly.

Defenses to the test include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Police intimidation,
  2. Poor lighting,
  3. Back or leg contusion(injury),
  4. Adverse weather conditions,
  5. Slippery or uneven surface conditions,
  6. High heels or other improper footwear,
  7. Overweight driver;
  8. Injuries,
  9. Diabetes,
  10. Head trauma (accident case), and/or,
  11. Extreme cold or heat.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

This test measures the involuntary jerking movement of the eyes. There are many other conditions that cause nystagmus besides alcohol consumption. Most Rhode Island police officers will perform the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus first. The police will instruct you to stand still, keep your feet together and keep your hands by your side. You will be instructed to keep your head still and follow the tip of a pen or other object with your eyes. The officer will hold the pen about 12 inches from your face. In grading the HGN there are three clues the officer looks for as signs of intoxication.  All clues have to do with the jerking of the eyes and not whether you move you head like most people think. A top Rhode Island DUI Defense Lawyer will know what other things cause nystagmus and how it does not translate into evidence of intoxication.

Walk-And-Turn Test

The walk-and-turn test is another field sobriety test developed to aid law enforcement in determining which motorists are under the influence of alcohol.  The walk-and-turn test is made as a divided attention test.  The walk and turn test requires a motorist to divide his or her attention between listening to and following the police officer's instructions while at the same time performing the physical task of walking a straight line for 9 steps when performing a 3 step turn and walking back 9 steps.   

The walk-and-turn test starts by asking the motorist to stand in the introduction phase with one foot in front of the other.  The police officer then instructs the motorist to walk a straight line taking nine steps heel to toe. After the nine steps are completed, the motorist turns making three small steps with one foot and returns 9 steps in the same heel to toe fashion.  The test is scored by giving the motorist in the DUI stop a clue for each of the following:        

  • A loss of balance during instruction phase;
  • If the motorist starts the test before being instructed to do so;
  • Stopping during the test phase to balance oneself;
  • Failing to walk in heel to toe fashion (more the 1 inch between heel to toe);
  • If the motorest steps off the line;
  • Motorist raises arms more than  6 inches;
  • Loses balance or turns improperly; and
  • Does the incorrect number of steps.

Two or more of these clues are seen to be evidence of impairment in a DUI case.  In other words, it indicates that your blood alcohol content is over .10 which is over the legal limit under Rhode Island DUI law, which is only .08

    However, there has been much criticism that the walk and turn test is both flawed and untrustworthy.  Pundits maintain that the walk and turn test is designed so that motorists will not pass, therefore are not accurate in DUI cases.        

One-Leg Stand Test

In the one leg stand test, law enforcement will instruct the motorist  to stand on one foot of his or her choosing, leaving the other foot six inches off the ground.  While doing this, the motorist is instructed to count aloud by thousands until told to put their foot down after 30 seconds has passed. The motorist is also instructed to look at the elevated foot while keeping his arms by his sides.

The following clues are used to determine impairment in the DUI investigation:

  • Swaying,
  • A motorist uses arms to balance;
  • Hopping; and/or
  • Putting foot down.

Two of more of these clues will lead to evidence of impairment in a DUI case.

Challenging Field Sobriety Tests

Top DUI lawyers will argue that the field sobriety tests are not a scientifically proven method to sustain a DUI charge. The test themselves and the way the police administer the tests lead to false assumptions. In many DUI cases, the lawyers can hire expert witnesses who understand the tests' weaknesses and can testify to discredit the tests. If you are arrested for drunk driving and the basis of the arrest is the field sobriety test it is imperative that you have a DUI lawyer that challenges the tests in order to help prevent you from a DUI conviction.  


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Rhode Island DUI Defense Lawyer

Michael Zarrella is one of Rhode Island's top DUI attorneys. If you have been charged with a DUI or any criminal matter, contact him today.