Maybe you’ve heard of the walk-and-turn, the one-leg stand, or other tests like reciting the alphabet backward or the finger-to-nose, where you have to close your eyes and touch your index finger to your nose while tilting your head back. These and other field sobriety tests have been used by law enforcement officers for decades to determine whether a DUI/DWI suspect is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. They have been scrutinized and invalidated due to too-high margins of error and misapplications that could lead to false DUI charges.
Today, Washington, D.C. uses a standardized set of three tests to assess DUI suspects: the Walk-and-Turn, the One-Leg Stand, and the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus.
Standardized Field Sobriety Testing
In the 1960s and 1970s, the accuracy of field sobriety tests was successfully challenged in many jurisdictions. This led to the development of Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). SFSTs offered law enforcement officers an established method of testing for impairment in drivers who have been stopped for DUI. The tests are meant to gauge a driver’s balance, coordination, and ability to follow instructions, which could be negatively impacted by alcohol and/or drugs.
The following is a basic overview of the three SFSTs used in Washington, D.C., in accordance with NHTSA guidelines:
The Walk-and-Turn is a divided attention test. It requires a subject to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, something that most sober people can do quite easily. The subject must listen to and then follow the officer’s instructions. During the Walk-and-Turn, the subject must take nine steps, heel-to-toe, in a straight line. He or she must then turn on one foot and return, taking another nine steps, heel-to-toe, in the opposite direction.
During the Walk-and-Turn, the officer will be looking for indicators like taking too many steps, loss of balance, beginning before the instructions are finished, using the arms to balance, and not touching heel-to-toe. When a subject displays two or more of these indicators, this test is estimated to be accurate in detecting an unlawful blood alcohol concentration (BAC) about 79% of the time—in ideal conditions.
The One-Leg Stand
The One-Leg Stand requires the subject to stand with one foot about six inches off the ground while counting aloud by thousands (“one thousand one,” “one thousand two,” and so on). The subject must do so until told to stop by the officer, who will time the subject for 30 seconds.
The NHTSA has found the One-Leg Stand to be accurate in detecting an unlawful BAC about 83% of the time in subjects who display two or more indicators of impairment. These indicators are swaying, using the arms to balance, hopping, and putting the foot down.
The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus
The final test in the SFST battery is the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus. Nystagmus is a vision condition characterized by the repetitive, uncontrolled movement of the eyes. Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is characterized by an involuntary jerking of the eyes as they rotate to one side or the other. It is believed that nystagmus will occur more frequently, be more pronounced, and happen when the eyes are at less of an angle when a person is under the influence of alcohol.
During the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, the officer will ask the subject to follow an object (such as a pen or a flashlight) with his or her eyes. The officer will move the object slowly from one side to the other and will observe the subject’s eyes as they track it. The officer will be looking for any of the six following signs: the left eye cannot smoothly track the object, the right eye cannot smoothly track the object, the left eye begins to jerk before 45 degrees from center, the right eye begins to jerk before 45 degrees from center, there is a distinct jerking in the left eye when it’s fully to the side, or there is a distinct jerking in the right eye when it’s fully to the side.
If any four or more of these signs are present, the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is estimated to be 88% accurate in detecting an unlawful BAC. It may also indicate the presence of seizure medications or a controlled substance in the subject’s system, such as barbiturates, depressants, phencyclidine (PCP), or various inhalants.
Field Sobriety Tests Gone Wrong
Even the NHTSA’s SFST manual does not claim that field sobriety tests are wholly accurate. It states that the procedures outlined in the manual are meant to describe how SFSTs are “…to be administered under ideal conditions…” and then goes on to say, “We recognize that the SFSTs will not always be administered under ideal conditions in the field, because such conditions do not always exist.” Variations to ideal conditions, like uneven pavement or poor lighting, “may have some effect on the evidentiary weight given to the results.”
When field sobriety tests are administered in less-than-ideal conditions, they place a driver at risk of “failing” for no good reason. High-heeled shoes, the flashing lights on a police car, a physical injury, or a host of other scenarios can skew the results of a test. Even nervousness or anxiety could affect a person’s performance on SFSTs. It’s your attorney’s job to find these faults and expose them so you can avoid a wrongful conviction or being pressured into a plea bargain.
Talk to Our Washington, D.C. DUI Lawyers Today
At Gracia & Mintz, we believe in fighting for our clients’ rights. Even in the face of “failed” field sobriety tests or breath tests, we know how to challenge DUI charges in Washington, D.C. Both of our founding attorneys are former prosecutors who know how the other side thinks and acts. One of our partners is a former law enforcement officer, giving him a unique understanding of the procedures and strategies used by the police to make arrests and gather evidence against suspects in a wide range of criminal matters. If you want a team on your side that knows the law from every angle, that’s Gracia & Mintz. Call (301) 842-8584 today!