Most people have watched at least one cop show or movie where a person is stopped on the suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and the officer instructs the suspect to perform several field sobriety tests (FSTs). It is even more frightening when you are the one standing on the side of the road. The common three standardized tests are:
• The walk and turn test;
• The horizontal gaze nystagmus test; and
• The one-leg stand test.
There have been standards established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on how these tests are supposed to be administered, but many law enforcement officers have not received the proper training to instruct a person through the steps of these FSTs or make snap judgments about the individual’s performance on these tests without judging the results objectively.
The purpose of the FSTs is to observe the individual’s ability to perform these tasks as an indicator of impairment. However, there are a number of issues with this type of testing. Every person has a different level of physical and cognitive fitness. By holding everyone to some obscure standard based on the observations of a police officer who may or may not have received the proper training in this area, it creates a dangerous situation where someone may be judged as impaired even when he is not.
Some of the factors that make FSTs less reliable include:
• The age of the individual being observed;
• The innate balance and equilibrium of the individual – many medical problems can lead to loss of balance;
• The physical fitness of the person;
• The impact of a police stop on the composure of the person being observed; and
• Whether the individual ever has performed these types of actions before the administration of the FSTs.
The lack of an accurate means of calculating for all the potential variances predisposes many officers to determine a person in under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he or she is not. In addition to problems with the establishment of an appropriate baseline, there are other issues that may impact the effectiveness of the FSTs. Some of these factors include:
• The administration of the FSTs on an inappropriate surface area – the law enforcement officer is supposed to find a level and smooth surface free from debris or other things that could interfere with a person’s balance, but this may be difficult when the person is stopped at the side of a road, leading to poor test results;
• The FSTs are performed in a heavy traffic area where there are numerous distractions;
• The lighting may impact the person’s abilities to perform the required tasks, including lights that are too bright or lack of appropriate lighting;
• There are adverse weather conditions that impact the administration of the FSTs; and
• The individual is wearing shoes that negatively impact balance and coordination.
There also are non-standardized FSTs, which might include having the individual recite the alphabet, count (forwards and backwards), touching a finger to the nose, picking up a coin, or other actions that are intended to help an officer gauge whether or not an individual is impaired. The problem with these tests, which officers may use to justify the administration a breath or chemical test, is that there are no established guidelines on how they are to be performed, leading to confusion and inaccuracy in the resulting determinations.
Even if the FSTs are administered properly, the accuracy of these tests in determining whether or not a person actually is driving while intoxicated is not great. It is important to know that there are ways to challenge the results of these tests and attack the argument that the officer had probable cause to make an arrest.