The average American driver has a 1% chance of getting pulled over by a police officer in a given year. A law enforcement official can pull you over for many different reasons, but they cannot detain you without probable cause.
If you’re stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, an officer may require you to complete a field sobriety test so they can establish probable cause. The tests look for physical indications that you are intoxicated, such as loss of balance or coordination.
There are three field sobriety tests in Minnesota (and everywhere else in the US); the horizontal gaze nystagmus, the one-leg stand, and the walk-and-turn. This post looks at each one in some detail and discusses what happens if you fail a field sobriety test.
The Three Field Sobriety Tests
An officer can choose to administer any of the field sobriety tests, and will go with all three in many cases. While there are generally accepted signs of inebriation arising from each test, it is up to officers to judge for themselves whether a person’s responses are indicative of a blood alcohol content (BAC) above the legal limit of 0.08%.
The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus
This test is named after an involuntary eye movement that becomes more pronounced after you’ve been drinking. When you’re sober, you should be able to track the sideways motion of an item, such as a pen or someone’s finger, without your eye jerking excessively.
When carrying out the test, an officer will look to see if you’re struggling to track the object smoothly, if the jerking gets worse when your eye is at maximum deviation (fully to one side), and whether jerking begins before there is a 45-degree angle between the pen and your eye.
The One-Leg Stand
Here, an officer will require you to stand with one of your feet slightly off the ground for a short period and observe how well you maintain your balance. Specifically, they will check whether you’re swaying, hopping, using your arms for balance, or allowing your suspended foot to touch the ground.
This test requires you to take nine heel-to-toe steps in a straight line before turning on one foot and walking in the same manner in the opposite direction. The officer will observe whether subjects:
- Start the test before the instructions have finished,
- Struggle to listen to instructions and maintain balance at the same time,
- Take pauses while walking,
- Lose their balance while turning,
- Fail to touch their heels to their toes on each step,
- Take the wrong number of steps, or
- Use their arms to maintain balance.
Does a Failed Field Sobriety Test Automatically Lead to a DWI?
As noted above, police use field sobriety tests to establish probable cause in suspected drunk driving cases, allowing them to place you under arrest. Evidence of a failed test is also admissible in a DWI court case.
However, a failed test is not considered proof that you had too much alcohol in your bloodstream. If you are arrested in relation to a potential DWI offense, you will be legally required to submit to a chemical alcohol test.
There is some disagreement around the effectiveness of field sobriety testing. Critics point out that the system relies on the subjective judgment of police officers, which inevitably leads to inconsistencies. There are also a number of factors that can impact the reliability of the tests, including:
- Disability of the driver, including visual impairments,
- Poor lighting, and
- Slippery conditions.
Sober people can sometimes fail field sobriety tests. It’s important to pay attention while undergoing your test so you can describe it to your lawyer in detail later on.
Knowing What to Expect During a DWI Stop
A DWI stop can happen to anyone, but it doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. If you’re familiar with the three field sobriety tests, you’re likely to be less panicked if you ever have to undergo one.
If you have a DWI case coming up and you think there may have been an issue with the field sobriety tests police carried out on you, we can answer your questions. Contact us today for a free review of your case.