A Field Sobriety Test is a physical and mental exercise conducted in DUI investigations. Police officers use such tests to determine potential intoxication during vehicle operations. Field sobriety tests (FSTs) assess a person’s ability to follow instructions while performing physical tasks, providing clues about their level of intoxication through balance, coordination, and overall manner.


Understanding Field Sobriety Tests

Field sobriety tests are standardized assessments used to determine whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is crucial to understand that the accuracy of these tests can be influenced by various factors, including police officer errors, environmental conditions, and individual differences among drivers. These tests often include different exercises that evaluate a driver’s overall behavior.


Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs)

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a federal agency under the Department of Transportation (DOT) that provides police guidelines for Driving Under The Influence (DUI) field sobriety tests.

NHTSA has validated given tests as reliable indicators of DUI:

  • The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test (HGN) assesses involuntary eye movement when someone moves their eyes sideways.
  • The Walk And Turn test (WAT) is a divided attention field sobriety test, that requires individuals to concentrate on mental and physical tasks simultaneously.
  • The One-Leg Stand test (OLS) is another divided attention field sobriety test. During the OLS, the officer instructs the subject to raise one foot about six inches off the ground, maintain that position, count from 1001 to 1030, and look down at their foot.

Properly administered, these standardized tests involve physical and mental tasks to assess sobriety and serve as reliable indicators of driver impairment.


Non-Standardized Tests

Officers using non-standardized field sobriety tests in California DUI investigations lack a proven correlation with impairment, and their accuracy may vary.

Some examples include the hand-pat, finger-to-nose, Rhomberg balance, and finger count tests. These tests evaluate several factors, but their reliability is questionable as they have not been validated for their correlation with blood alcohol concentration (BAC).


Driving Under Influence Laws in California

California’s Driving Under the Influence (DUI) regulations vary for commercial and underage drivers. Under California Vehicle Code Section 23152(f), it is illegal for an individual under the influence to drive a vehicle. Thus, Poor performance on FSTs often leads to DUI arrests.

Commercial drivers adhere to a lower BAC limit of 0.04% due to the professional nature of their vehicles and potential risks. Underage drivers under 21 are subject to a “zero tolerance” policy, where a BAC of 0.01% or higher results in a DUI offense.

California’s BAC limit of 0.08% is crucial in determining DUI charges. Exceeding this limit constitutes a “per se”(itself) DUI, meaning evidence of the violation alone is adequate for an arrest without further proof. For instance, if an officer suspects intoxication and you register a blood alcohol level of 0.08%, the officer can charge you with a ‘per se’ DUI.

The consequences for an underage DUI are usually not as severe as a zero tolerance offense. Individuals found guilty of an underage DUI will get a one-year suspension of their driver’s license and face a fine ranging from $100 to $300, which can vary based on any prior infractions within the past year. Additionally, individuals aged 18 to 21 must complete an alcohol education program to regain their driving privileges.


Chemical Testing and Implied Consent

Implied consent laws in all states generally require that law enforcement officers legally arrest motorists for DUI to administer chemical tests to determine the motorists’ blood alcohol concentration (BAC). These laws exist nationwide but vary in their specific provisions.

“California Implied Consent Law” under vehicle code section 23612 mentions that all drivers must agree to a chemical test after the arrest on suspicion of DUI.

While individuals can usually refuse field sobriety tests, such as the Preliminary Alcohol Screening (PAS) test, opting for the PAS test does not exempt them from the mandatory chemical tests. Refusing the chemical test results substantially increased penalties for chemical test refusal.


Factors Affecting Field Sobriety

Law enforcement officers have framed field sobriety tests to determine a driver’s potential impairment. It includes physical and cognitive tasks that can be challenging when under the influence. However, these tests may not accurately indicate impairment due to other influencing factors such as:

  • Physical and Health Factors: Various physical conditions such as arthritis, injuries, or balance issues can obstruct one’s ability to perform the tasks required in a field sobriety test successfully.
  • Environmental Aspects: Performing the test on a sloped or uneven surface can affect balance, making the test more challenging. Additionally, weather conditions, such as heavy rain, snow, or strong winds, can pose substantial challenges to the tests, irrespective of sobriety.
  • Nervousness and Stress: The stress induced by a police stop and the request to undergo a field sobriety test can trigger nervousness, subsequently impacting one’s test performance. Fear might lead to trembling, stumbling, or difficulty following instructions, similar to signs of impairment. However, it is crucial to communicate with an officer about your ability to complete the tests.

Awareness of these factors is crucial in addressing the fairness and accuracy of field sobriety tests.


Steps to Take if Stopped for Suspected DUI

Properly handling the situation is crucial if law enforcement pulls you over under suspicion of DUI.

Some steps to take if you are stopped for suspected DUI include:

  • Stay calm and composed, showing respect to the police officers. Additionally, try to avoid confrontations or arguments.
  • When asked, give your information, such as driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. It is advisable to always carry these basic documents with you.
  • You have the right to remain silent. You can politely decline to answer potentially self-incriminating queries instead of providing false information.
  • Field sobriety tests are voluntary in most states. You can choose whether to participate but politely decline the test. These tests can be subjective and may not be in your favor.
  • When requested, you must undergo a chemical test. Refusal to take these tests may result in a separate driver’s license suspension and other penalties, depending on your state’s regulations.
  • You have the right to legal representation if arrested under suspicion. You can ask for an attorney before answering questions or attempting any tests. It’s always beneficial to have an attorney as soon as possible. After your release, seek advice from a skilled DUI attorney.

DUI laws vary by state, so knowing your rights and duties in your specific jurisdiction is crucial. The DUI Lawyers at the Law Offices of J.G Winter can guide you throughout the legal process and protect your rights.


Defense Against Field Sobriety Tests

Police officers use field sobriety tests as a part of their DUI investigation to gather evidence against the driver. It’s important to note that you are not obligated to participate in these tests when requested by the police.

When individuals take these tests, police officers need to administer them following their training and the standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In a DUI case, an experienced lawyer can help defend against field sobriety tests when a police officer deviates from NHTSA standards while administering them. For example, if a police officer administers these tests on uneven terrain like a hill, it could significantly affect the results, particularly for balance tests like the Walk and Turn and One Leg Stand tests. Such a practice indicates that the police officer lacks proper training in DUI investigations. If the police officer fails to administer the tests correctly, suspects shall not be held responsible.

If you’re facing DUI charges, contact us at the Law Office of J.G Winter to review your case.


FAQs on Field Sobriety Test

Are field sobriety tests accurate for DUI?

Field sobriety tests may not always be accurate for DUI due to various reasons, such as potential errors by the police officer conducting the test, the environmental conditions at the test site, and individual differences in drivers, including physical fitness and health. Field sobriety tests are for ideal conditions, but real-life scenarios, including nighttime testing on busy roads, can make them less reliable indicators of DUI.

What is a breathalyzer test?

Law enforcement uses a breathalyzer test to measure an individual’s blood alcohol concentration from their breath The device estimates the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream by analyzing alcohol content in exhaled breath. Such tests assess impairment due to alcohol consumption while driving.

Can I refuse a breathalyzer in California?

You can refuse a breathalyzer test in California, but the state operates under an “implied consent” law. By obtaining a driver’s license and driving in California, you agree to submit to chemical testing, like a breathalyzer, if lawfully arrested for DUI.

Is taking the field sobriety test in California mandatory?

Taking field sobriety tests in California is not mandatory. However, police officers may stop you for FSTs under suspicion of DUI to perform these tests.

Do field and weather conditions affect the tests?

Yes, field and weather conditions can affect the outcome of the tests. Adverse weather conditions may affect a person’s balance, coordination, and performance during the tests. Additionally, distractions or hazards in the testing environment, like oncoming traffic or flashing lights, can further hamper a person’s ability to complete the tests properly. So, when evaluating the results of field sobriety tests in DUI cases, it is crucial to consider these environmental factors.

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