Have you ever driven by a traffic stop on the side of the road or highway? Sometimes, you’ll see a police officer putting a suspect through tests of coordination that seem odd if you don’t know what you’re looking at. These are known as field sobriety tests (FSTs), and they are an initial way for police officers to gather evidence that a driver is impaired by alcohol.
In today’s post, we’ll discuss what FSTs are, whether they are reliable and whether you need to take them when asked.
The three basic tests
If a police officer pulls you over and suspects drunk driving, he typically needs to gather more evidence before arresting you or asking you to submit to chemical testing (breath, blood or urine tests). The field sobriety tests are a way to gain that evidence.
There are many possible tests, but there are three that are endorsed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and used nationwide. They are:
- The walk-and-turn test: Suspect walks in a straight line, heel to toe, for an instructed number of steps, turns around in place and walks back in the other direction. Measures coordination and ability to follow instructions.
- The one-leg stand: Suspect lifts one leg about six inches off the ground and balances on the other leg until instructed to stop. Test usually lasts about 30 seconds. Measures balance and ability to follow instructions.
- The horizonal gaze nystagmus: Suspect follows a moving object from side to side with his eyes. At some point, drunk or sober, a person’s eyes will jerk involuntarily as they move horizontally. When impaired, it happens at a shallower angle, and that is what the officer is looking for.
Are these tests reliable?
The three standard FSTs are endorsed as reliable measures of impairment by the NHTSA, but failing them doesn’t necessarily mean you are drunk. People can fail for numerous reasons, including health issues that impact balance and coordination, nervousness and inability to hear instructions (a busy roadside can be a noisy place).
More importantly, “passing” or “failing” is subjective and determined by the police officer. He or she is looking for you to fail in order to justify further testing.
Can you refuse to take FSTs?
There is no penalty in Georgia for refusing a field sobriety test. Taking it just gives the officer more reason to require additional testing (which you can be penalized for refusing). Whether you take an FST is up to you, but you won’t face punishment specifically for refusing to participate.
If you have been arrested for alleged drunk driving, it is important to understand and protect your rights. To that end, please seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.