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Are Field Sobriety Tests Accurate?

By Hager & Schwartz, P.A.

April 19, 2018

Field sobriety tests are a tool law enforcement officers use to try and establish probable cause, or a reasonable belief that someone has committed the crime of driving while intoxicated. Because law enforcement officers are so well-versed in conducting these tests, many people believe they’re extremely accurate and pretty much impossible to get away from. However, these people are often shocked to learn the truth: field sobriety tests are notoriously error-prone and frequently lead to false or unlawful arrests and searches.

On this blog, we’ll discuss sobriety tests in more detail and explain how errors could be the key to having your case dismissed.

Accepted Types of Sobriety Tests

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Southern California Research Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collaborated on extensive research regarding signs of intoxication, leading to the development of the standardized field sobriety tests we have today. Before this, sobriety tests were essentially a “wild-west” where officers simply asked you to perform a task and then used their gut feelings to determine if you were intoxicated. However, the three most accurate have been further refined and scrutinized to make them as uniform and reliable as possible. However, that uniformity and reliability is still somewhat staggeringly low.

The three types of field sobriety tests include the “walk and turn” test, the “one-leg stand” test, and the “horizontal gaze nystagmus” test. Let’s take a brief look at each of them.

The walk and turn test is about as simple as it sounds: the officer asks you to walk forward in a straight line, heel-to-toe fashion (like you’re on a balance beam) for a certain number of steps, turn without lifting your feet, and then walk the same number back. This test is not only meant to test your balance, but your ability to process both a mental and a physical task simultaneously.

Sound difficult? That’s because it is. If you don’t have good balance to begin with, you could flunk this test while completely sober, leading to a false positive and unwarranted arrest. Furthermore, add nerves and possible vertigo into the situation and your chances of failing could go up even higher.

The one-leg stand test is equally, if not more difficult, requiring you to balance on one leg for an extended period of time while completing a mental task, such as reciting the alphabet or counting to a certain number. Even for those with good balance this test can get tricky in a hurry. Splitting your concentration between mental and physical tasks is never simple, and that could leave you prone to being falsely accused of a crime you never committed.

The horizontal gaze nystagmus test is perhaps the simplest of the three, requiring no physical challenge but rather is a check for involuntary movements in the eye that are accentuated by alcohol intoxication. While this test is easy to administer, it’s been found to inaccurately target those with attention disorders, hyperactivity, or even who are sleep-deprived due to a lack of muscular control beyond their physical abilities.

With so many possible weaknesses, even though these tests have been used and refined so heavily, estimates say that the walk and turn test is accurate just 68 percent of the time, and the walk and turn test just 65 percent! That’s a false positive on more than three out of every ten people investigated! The horizontal gaze test is the most accurate of the three, but even that only has a success rate of 77 percent, still leading to a false arrest in nearly one out of every five people tested.

Have You Been Arrested?

When officers depend on these tests to establish probable cause, make an arrest, and force you to take a blood or breath test, it’s startling for many people to hear just how incredibly inaccurate these tests can be, especially when used on their own. Using multiple tests does lead to better and more accurate results, but officers don’t always give people that luxury. Furthermore, officers are human, and confirmation bias could play a role in spotting supposed signs of intoxication that aren’t really there, further prompting these false arrests.

If you’ve been arrested and charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact a Daytona Beach criminal defense lawyer from Hager & Schwartz, P.A.! Call us today at (386) 693-1637 for an immediate case evaluation.