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As part of the DUI investigation process, an officer in a DUI stop and investigation will typically ask a driver who is suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol to participate in a series of field sobriety tests. These tests are not mandatory and a driver can lawfully refuse to participate in the field sobriety tests. The standard field sobriety tests include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test which looks for involuntary eye movements that occur at certain angles when a person is intoxicated, the walk and turn test which requires a driver to walk down and back on a straight line and the one-leg stand which requires the driver to balance with his or her foot elevated off the ground while counting. In addition, the driver may be asked to perform the Rhomberg Balance Test, the Finger Count Test, the Finger-to-Nose test and other tests designed to measure a driver’s coordination, balance and ability to remember and follow instructions. These tests are administered by law enforcement officers who may misinterpret a driver’s performance as a sign of impairment. There are common problems that affect the accuracy and reliability of field sobriety testing.
1. Subjectivity of the Officer
The field sobriety tests are administered by the officer who is investigating the DUI arrest and are generally conducted without using any measuring tools or neutral mechanical devices. For example, the horizontal gaze nystagmus test requires that the officer estimate the precise angle at which a driver’s eyes begin to tremor. The data is based completely on the officer’s estimates and observations and the officer may be looking to arrest the driver for DUI, which may affect his or her neutrality. Because a driver’s performance on many of these tests is subjective to the administering officer, the test results may be open to challenge later in court.
2. Medical Conditions
In many cases, a defendant may be suffering from an acute or chronic medical condition that can impact his or her ability to perform well on the field sobriety tests. In many DUI investigations, the driver may have just been in a major collision and may have suffered a concussion. In these circumstances, the driver will often have problems maintaining balance and difficulty communicating. In fact, a concussed driver is often mistaken for one who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In addition, the driver may be extremely tired or nervous and can have problems completing certain balance or agility functions.
3. External Factors
It is important to remember that the field sobriety tests are not conducted in a sterile laboratory under ideal conditions. Instead, the tests often are administered late at night on uneven roads and in poor lighting. The driver may have trouble maintaining balance or following instructions as a result of these conditions and not because he or she is intoxicated or impaired. In many cases, the driver’s choice of footwear will impact his or her ability to properly complete the walk and turn or one-leg stand test, which may cause the officer to interpret this as evidence of intoxication.