What Are the Most Common Field Sobriety Tests?

common field sobriety testsPolice will go to great lengths to prove you were impaired by alcohol or drugs at a car stop.

Why? Well, drunk or impaired driving is dangerous, and the police want to make the roads safer for all of us. That’s great.

However, law enforcement officers still use antiquated detection methods to determine if someone drove under the influence.

Field sobriety tests can be inaccurate—even a sober person can fail a test. Despite their failings, law enforcement officers still use standardized field sobriety testing, or SFST, as evidence of impairment.

When I defend clients charged with drunk driving, one of the first things I do is look closely at the arrest reports to see how my client performed on the SFST, especially if they refused the breathalyzer.

Your poor performance on the SFST does not mean you are automatically guilty. Far from it. Poor results suggest I have to dig deeper to determine why the officer says you failed the tests.

Call Andrew Flusche, Attorney at Law, PLC, to discuss how I can use my experience to give you the best chance to beat your DUI charge.

What Are Field Sobriety Tests?

Field sobriety tests are one of three phases the NHTSA says are part of a DWI arrest. The idea is that these “tests” can help an officer know if you are impaired or not.

That’s nice in theory, but typically, the police officer has already formed an opinion about your sobriety by the time you get out of the car and before they administer a single test. They seldom look at your performance objectively.

Instead, they tend to see confirmation of their preconceived suspicions. And essentially, SFST actually examines your fitness and agility level rather than your ability to drive.

According to the NHTSA, patrol officers begin the DWI arrest procedure by observing driving behavior or determining what happened at an accident scene.

Police on proactive patrol looking for people they suspect are DWI say they watch for vehicles that are swerving, weaving, stopping and slowing, or operating erratically without any reason.

Once they see this type of driving or a traffic infraction, they pull the car over. That’s phase one.

Phase two begins when the officer approaches the driver’s window. They will ask you questions and look for evidence of inebriation while observing how you answer.

Trained police officers look for watery, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, an odor of alcohol, confusion, and difficulty performing simple tasks.

If they observe such signs of intoxication—and even sometimes if they don’t—they’ll create a report detailing their observations.

In their report, officers include things like smelling alcohol on your breath, difficulty retrieving your license, fumbling your words, or slurring while speaking.

The next thing you know, the officer asks you to exit the car. The officer watches you leave the car and notates any difficulties they observe.

Now, you’re standing on the side of the road, trying to follow the officer’s instructions about SFST. Thus begins phase three of a DWI arrest.

Virginia Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

You might wonder, What are the most common field sobriety tests? The NHTSA approved three field sobriety tests that officers routinely use:

  • The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HNG) test,
  • The Walk-and-Turn (WAT), and
  • The One Leg Stand (OLS).

Many officers also use other “traditional” field sobriety tests, like counting backward to a random number after starting on a random number, saying the alphabet (without singing it), and the “finger dexterity” test.

HGN Test

The HGN is a controversial test. However, the NHTSA calls the test reliable because the eye movement that supposedly indicates alcohol consumption is involuntary.

You’ll recognize the HGN test because officers use the tip of a pen or a finger to conduct the test. The officer moves the object side to side and watches for nystagmus, which is a jerking motion of the eyes.

Divided Attention Tests

The NHTSA calls the WAT and OLS “divided attention” tests. There are two stages to each test: instruction and performance.

The officer tests the person’s ability to understand and follow instructions while testing balance at the same time. The idea is that remembering the instructions while simultaneously balancing is difficult for someone who has been drinking.

Portable Breath Tests

The NHTSA suggests that portable breath tests or PBTs should be used after the completion of SFST. PBTs are not accurate unless used properly. Notwithstanding their limitations, they can provide evidence of alcohol consumption.

Are Field Sobriety Tests Mandatory?

You might feel like you have to take field sobriety tests, but you don’t. Some people take them because they think they can pass the tests and want to avoid an arrest.

Others take them because they believe they have no choice. Others choose to refuse the tests because they believe it is in their best interest. Whatever you choose to do when you are under pressure from an officer, we can deal with the results.

I can work with you to develop a defense strategy whether you took the tests and “failed” or refused the tests.

What Happens If You Refuse Field Sobriety Tests?

The problem with SFST is that, as we’ve said, police often form their conclusions before you even take the test. Often, they will say you failed even if you deviate only slightly from the officer’s instructions.

So it can be a no-win situation when faced with taking the tests or refusing. You might have a valid reason to refuse to try to perform SFST, like an injury that limits your movements or fatigue.

What Happens If You Pass a Field Sobriety Test?

Theoretically, if you “pass” the SFST, an officer should let you go. But they often don’t. Even worse, police officers are tough graders. It’s hard to pass an SFST, but not impossible.

As we discussed, the officer already suspects you’ve been drinking when they ask you to step out of your car. Passing one test is not likely to change the officer’s mind. However, passing all of them might.

The officer should note that you passed in a report, but that does not mean the officer will let you go.

Why Do Cops Do Field Sobriety Tests Instead of Breathalyzers?

Police will still use the breathalyzer or blood test at booking if the officer places you under arrest for DWI.

Additionally, the arresting officer can use the PBT roadside to corroborate the officer’s belief you are driving under the influence. Therefore, they use breathalyzers in conjunction with SFST.

Failing Field Sobriety Tests Does Not Mean You Are Guilty

Field sobriety tests are a good indicator of intoxication in laboratory settings conducted under ideal conditions. But ideal conditions do not exist in the real world.

Officers need to administer the tests and interpret the results correctly and objectively, and they don’t always do that. In my years of practice, I’ve learned that law enforcement officers get it wrong sometimes.

But I can use their mistakes to your advantage

Contact me today at 540-318-5824for a free consultation. We’re available 24/7 to take your call and always ready to help you overcome an honest mistake.

Andrew Flusche

My name is Andrew Flusche. I am a traffic and misdemeanor defense lawyer in Virginia. I limit my practice to traffic tickets and misdemeanor defense, so I know the ins and outs of these offenses. I literally wrote the book on reckless driving in Virginia which you can get on Amazon here or download for free here. I opened my practice in 2008 after earning my Juris Doctor degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. Since then, I have earned over 600 5-star reviews from happy clients on Google, Yelp, and Facebook. If you’ve been charged with a misdemeanor offense in Virginia, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Your initial consultation is always free, and you'll talk directly with me about the details of your case.

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