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How a DUI Lawyer Can Challenge Field Sobriety Tests

Legal Blog

When police pull you over because they suspect you of a DUI, there are two different tests they will require you to do. One is breathalyzer test which tests your blood alcohol content. The second consists of a series of field sobriety tests. The field tests usually include: 

  • Stand on one foot while counting
  • Walk a straight line, heel to toe for a specific distance
  • With arms stretched out, touch your finger to the tip of your nose.
  • Repeat the alphabet from Z to A
  • Nystagmus or Horizontal/Vertical Gaze Test. You’re asked to follow the motion of a pen held a foot from your face.
  • Romberg Balance Test – This is where you have to stand with your feet together, head tilted back slightly, and eyes closed. The officer will ask you to say stop when you think 30 minutes have passed.
  • Hand Pat test
  • Finger Count test

In New Jersey,  and many other states however, these tests fall into two categories, standardized testing and unstandardized testing. Standardized testing is limited to three tests the one leg stand, the walk-and-turn test, and the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. One of the defenses for DUI charges includes challenging the reliability of field sobriety tests. There is a margin of error for any of these tests. 

Reliability of  Field Sobriety Testing

When it comes to sobriety testing, one of the primary concerns is the reliability of the tests. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court has found that the horizontal gaze nystagmus test not actually reliable at all. Additionally, studies have found the one leg stand test is reliable only 65% of the time. Meaning, even if the officer tells the recipient exactly how to perform the test, with no confusion on the recipient’s part, 35% of those tests are unreliable.  The walk-and-turn test doesn’t fare much better. This test is dependable about 68% of the time. The same caveats of proper instruction and understanding apply. When all three of the field sobriety tests are completed together, they have an 82% accuracy rate. With such a large margin of error, field sobriety tests are clearly not foolproof and cannot be solely relied on to determine DUI charges. 

Additional Challenges to Accurate Field Sobriety Tests

In addition to the reliability, several other factors can affect the results of sobriety testing.

Physical Condition

A person’s physical condition might prevent them from being able to complete the test accurately. For example, if you have an injury to your knee, you would have a tough time passing a one-leg stand on that leg. Or maybe you have a condition like Multiple Sclerosis that affects your balance. If that were the case, a walk and turn test might be a real challenge for you, even if you haven’t had anything to drink. So, you can clearly see how that might be a problem.

Medical Condition

In addition to medical conditions, other aspects of your physical state could impact the quality of field sobriety testing. If you are overweight, you might have issues. Or, if you are a senior citizen, any of these tests could be challenging to complete. Even the anxiety of being stopped by the police could impact how well you perform any of the tests.

Weather, Lighting, and Location

Let us, for a moment, consider the scene of a traffic stop; you’re pulled over, probably along the shoulder of a busy road. The officer expects you to get out of the vehicle, cars flying by, the wind buffeting you. The noise level is probably pretty high as well.

In addition to the potholes and litter, the shoulder of the road is likely to be uneven and narrow. Add to that the flashing lights and the strobe light effect from the oncoming traffic, even an entirely sober person might find it difficult to complete the tests.

The Eye Of The Beholder

Another issue with field sobriety testing is its subjectivity. The opinion of an officer subjected to the same environmental concerns we cited above. This can also skew the results of the test. So, even if you performed the tests without any problems, the officer could still believe you failed and arrest you for driving under the influence.

Keep in mind, you do have the right to refuse the test. Unfortunately, refusal almost invariably results in an arrest. But if you are confident you haven’t been drinking and are not under the influence at all, your attorney can clear up everything for you. 

Remember, even though you have the right to refuse field sobriety testing, it is your duty to take a breathalyzer test at the station if they bring you in. You’ll receive a refusal charge if you refuse the breathalyzer.  Being charged with refusal is basically the same as a DUI, only harder to beat.

Call A NJ DUI Defense Lawyer

As you can see, there are many scenarios and situations that make field sobriety testing problematic. The bright side is, because your NJ DUI attorney knows all these facts, they may have a valid and lawful way to challenge the results on your behalf. Always stay informed, and know your rights.

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