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What are field sobriety tests?

| Dec 7, 2020 | Criminal Defense |

If you ever get pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving in Louisiana, one of the first things an officer may do is ask to you participate in a series of field sobriety tests (FSTs). These are tests that measure your physical coordination and ability to follow directions. They are used to determine if you are likely impaired by alcohol and to give the officer more evidence to either make an arrest or subject you to chemical testing (usually a breath test).

Although there are a wide variety of FSTs available, law enforcement agencies across much of the U.S. rely on three tests because they are endorsed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These tests include:

  • The walk-and-turn test: You walk a straight line, heel to toe, for a certain number of steps, pivot on one foot and walk back in the same manner
  • The one-leg stand test: you lift one foot off the ground about six inches and balance on the other foot. The officer usually has you hold that pose for about 30 seconds
  • The horizontal gaze nystagmus: You follow a moving object with your eyes and the officer observes when your eyes begin to involuntarily jerk. This happens to anyone as they reach wide peripheral angles, but it often happens at shallower angles when someone is intoxicated.

Do these tests work?

Field sobriety tests can be good indicators of alcohol impairment. But plenty of sober people can fail these tests as well. You may be more likely to fail because you:

  • Suffer from health issues that limit mobility
  • Have poor balance
  • Have one of dozens of eye conditions that can cause similar results on the HGN test
  • Have difficulty following directions due to a learning disability
  • Have difficulty completing the test because you couldn’t hear directions, are nervous or find it hard to focus in a noisy and dark environment (like the side of a road at night)
  • Are unable to follow directions because the officer delivers unclear instructions and deviates from standard test protocol

In a nutshell, these tests are arguably ineffective because the results cannot definitively prove impairment. But few people realize that officers use these tests primarily as a way to gather evidence to warrant further testing in the form of blood, breath or urine analysis. Because FSTs are largely a pretense, the officer has a vested interest in saying that you failed the test.

Field sobriety tests can be refused, and results can be challenged

In Louisiana, you have the right to refuse to participate in field sobriety tests. If there is other evidence to suggest that you are impaired, the officer may arrest you anyway – but you do have the right to decline the tests.

If you take the tests and believe that the officer wrongfully failed you, it is sometimes possible to challenge the results in court. This is especially true if the test was captured on the officer’s dashcam or body camera.

To understand and exercise all of your rights following a drunk driving arrest, please discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney.