Law enforcement officers have an array of tools and tactics at their disposal when stopping, investigating, and arresting motorists they suspect are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Among these tests, at least in the initial stages, are Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFST).
If you or someone you love was recently pulled over and arrested under suspicion of DUI by a law enforcement officer in Ventura County or any other county in Southern California, it is likely that the arresting officer requested you perform a battery of tests to gauge your impairment. It is also likely that the officer did not inform you as to whether these tests were mandatory – they are not.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are three standard components to Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. These include:
- Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus – This tests involves officers asking motorists to track an object, such as a pen or light, as they move it across their field of vision. They are looking for nystagmus, which is a condition that causes involuntary movement in the eyes, and is commonly an indication of impairment by alcohol or other controlled substances.
- One Leg Stand – An officer will ask a suspect to raise one leg off the ground and count to some number. Because they are asking them to perform two things at once, this is referred to as a split-attention test.
- Walk-and-Turn Test – Police will instruct drivers to walk in a straight line, heel-to-toe, and then turn around and walk back in the same fashion. It is also designed as a split-attention test, and some officers may also ask suspects to count each step as they walk.
In addition to these three standard tests, officers may also ask motorists to perform non-standardized tests, such as requiring a suspect to tilt their head back, close their eyes and touch their nose, recite the alphabet, or count backwards. These are often tactics that afford law enforcement more time to find evidence that you are impaired.
What You Need to Know
The most important thing to know about field sobriety tests is that they are not mandatory. You have the right to refuse them if you choose to do so, and many legal experts suggest that you do. This is because standardized field sobriety tests are not an objective measurement of impairment. According to some, they are actually designed to make you fail.
SFSTs are also unreliable sources of evidence, as environmental factors, such as windy conditions or uneven roadways, can create results that may “indicate” impairment or present signs that a person is impaired, even when they are not. Additionally, the physical or mental health of an individual can cause them to perform poorly on these tests, even if they are not impaired. Ultimately, they are not a requirement or basis for an officer to make an arrest. Even if you “pass” them, you can still be arrested and asked to take a chemical test.
What field sobriety tests are best at is providing law enforcement officers with additional probable cause to test your breath, blood, or urine for the presence of alcohol or drugs. By refusing these field sobriety tests, you give them less opportunity to note indications of impairment, something that can potentially benefit your case should you be charged with DUI.
Many people who took field sobriety tests and believed they passed often question whether this can be used as evidence to support their defense. Generally, they will not do much in your case, especially if an officer has sufficient basis to stop you and to believe you are impaired. The more appropriate approach to defending against DUI charges it to question whether an arresting officer did have sufficient grounds to (a) stop you and (b) believe you were under the influence. These can include signs such as swerving, traffic violations, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, the smell of alcohol, and more.
It is also important to note that following field sobriety tests, or after an officer has determined they have sufficient grounds to suspect you are under the influence, you may be requested to take a preliminary breath test. These tests, too, are optional, as the devices used are different than those at police stations or local jails. While you can refuse these, an officer may still detain you and take you to a location where you can take a non-roadside chemical test. You can also refuse these tests if you wish – however, if you do, you face stiff penalties to your license, including an automatic suspension of your driver’s license. It is commonly advised that drivers do not refuse these non-roadside chemical tests.
At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our award-winning lawyers have handled many DUI cases involving a wide range of facts and circumstances, including cases where drivers passed, “failed,” and refused field sobriety tests. If you have questions about your case and how our firm can help defend you during both criminal and DMV administrative hearings, contact our Ventura criminal defense attorneys today for a free consultation. We serve clients throughout Southern California.