Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

Posted by Richard Lawson | Nov 01, 2012 | 0 Comments

Georgia Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

If an officer makes a traffic stop and suspects you are under the influence of alcohol, the officer will likely ask you to step out of your vehicle to determine whether you’re safe to continue driving. Law enforcement officers are trained to administer standardized field sobriety tests in Georgia, which are designed to assess your mental and physical impairment. This battery of tests includes the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk and turn, and the one leg stand.  The last two tests are divided attention tests that focus on the abilities needed for safe driving – balance, coordination, and information processing.

During the standardized field sobriety tests, the officer will be evaluating your performance by looking for certain clues. These clues, if observed, may provide the officer with probable cause to arrest you for DUI.

HGN Test

The horizontal gaze nystagmus test (commonly known as the HGN test) is designed to look for an involuntary jerking of the human eye that becomes readily noticeable when a person is impaired by a depressant, whether alcohol or a prescribed medication. In administering the HGN test, you are asked to follow a stimulus (typically a light at the tip of a pen or the officer’s finger) with your eyes and your eyes only.  Each eye is examined for three specific clues and the officer will make several passes with the stimulus during the test. There are six total clues and if at least four clues are observed, there is a stronger likelihood that you are an impaired driver.

The first clue he is looking for is the lack of smooth pursuit. This is observed when the eyes jerk while following a smoothly moving stimulus.  The second clue is distinct and sustained nystagmus and this occurs when the eyes jerk when held at maximum deviation for a minimum of four seconds.  An unimpaired person will exhibit nystagmus at maximum deviation, but it will not manifest for more than a few seconds, and specifically less than the four seconds necessary for this clue to be present. The third clue the officer check for is whether the onset of nystagmus occurs prior to 45 degrees. The officer will estimate a 45 degree angle by holding the stimulus 12 to 15 inches away from your shoulder.

The HGN test is frequently administered incorrectly.  Because it is considered a scientific test, if it is administered incorrectly the entire test is invalidated and cannot be used as evidence. If the officer left the flashing lights on his patrol vehicle on or has you face the roadway, the passing headlights or flashers will create a strobe effect that can cause false indicators during the test. Certain prescribed medications, especially seizure medication, and certain conditions can also cause a nystagmus. Brain damage, brain tumors, recent head trauma, certain eye conditions, and inner ear disease all cause nystagmus.

Walk and Turn Test

There are two phases to the Walk and Turn test – the instructions stage and the walking stage.  During the instructions stage, you must stand with your feet in heel-to-toe position, with your arms at your sides, and listen to the instructions given by the officer.  During this stage the officer is looking for two specific clues, whether you can balance while remaining in that position and whether you attempt to begin the test before being told to do so.

During the walking stage, you must take nine heel-to-toe steps, while counting out loud and looking down at your feet, without stopping or using your arms for balance or stepping off line.  To turn, you must keep your lead foot planted, which will always be your left foot, while taking several small steps to complete the turn.  There are six clues that the officer is looking for during the walking stage – whether you stop walking (usually to steady yourself), whether you leave more than a half inch of space between your heel and toe on any step, whether you step off line during any of the steps, whether you raise one of both of your arms more than six inches from your sides to maintain balance, whether you make an improper turn by turning in the wrong direction, lifting your front foot, or spinning around instead of taking several small steps, and whether you take an incorrect number of steps. If the officer observes at least two out of the eight possible clues during this test, there is a stronger likelihood that you are an impaired driver.

One Leg Stand

The one leg stand also consists of two stages - an instructions stage and a balancing and counting stage. You are expected to stand with your feet together with your arms by your side during the instructions stage. When you are told to begin the test, you must raise one leg approximately six inches off the ground, keeping your raised foot parallel to the ground and your arms at your sides.  While looking at your feet you must count out loud in thousandths (one thousand one, one thousand two, etc.) until you are told to stop.  The officer is looking to see if you sway while balancing, use your arms for balance by raising one or both arms more than six inches from your side, hop, or put your foot down prior to being told to end the test. If the officer observes at least two out of the four possible clues during this test, there is a stronger likelihood that you are an impaired driver.

Many factors can affect the reliability of these tests and the officer should medically qualify the subject prior to testing. If you have any medical issues that would make it difficult for you to balance or walk comfortably, such as a recent injury or an inner ear condition, the results of the tests will not be reliable. It has also been shown that people that are age 65 or older or more than fifty pounds overweight may not be able to perform the walk and turn or one leg stand test, whether or not they are intoxicated.  Further, environmental conditions may affect the reliability of field sobriety testing as the tests should be completed on a dry, level surface with adequate lighting.

Do I have to take Field Sobriety Tests in Georgia?

Georgia Field Sobriety Tests are completely voluntary and you have the right to refuse to perform these evaluations. These tests are frequently administered incorrectly and the scoring is very subjective. Many people have difficulty with these evaluations when they are sober and your nervousness when interacting with the officer after he has made it clear he believes you are intoxicated will likely make you perform more poorly than you would otherwise.  In many cases, the officer has already made the decision to arrest you for DUI and by submitting to these tests, you are only helping him build his case against you.

So, our general advice is that since the field sobriety tests are voluntary in Georgia, you should not submit to them.  This advice does not necessarily apply to the chemical test of your blood, breath or urine, since your license can be suspended for failure to submit to chemical testing in Georgia. If you have submitted to Field Sobriety Tests in Georgia, contact us today.  Our Georgia DUI Attorneys are here 24 / 7 to help you.

About the Author

Richard Lawson

Managing Partner at Lawson & Berry:


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