Why people misunderstand the results of field sobriety testing

Posted by Richard Lawson | Nov 20, 2016 | 0 Comments

Passing field sobriety testing is much harder than many people believe.  If you think you "passed" field sobriety testing and were still arrested, you may not have done as well as you had thought. That false belief is not your fault.  The tests are unfair, and many people feel that they have passed the field sobriety tests and still were arrested for DUI.

The reason is not only are the tests designed to be failed, but they are also scored in an entirely unfair way.  In fact, of all the examinations a person will take in their lifetime, standardized field sobriety tests are the only ones that you cannot practice before taking them, and you do not know the scoring criteria as well.   While the officer who arrested you is well versed and trained in these tests.  

Additionally, the person scoring the test cannot be objective.  The tests are subjectively scored by your accuser, the police officer who has arrested you for a DUI.

Field sobriety testing is designed to test your balance and ability to multitask and follow directions. They are “divided attention tests.” Even someone who is completely sober could have a difficult time succeeding in field sobriety testing. Officers evaluate the person based on several clues for each test they conduct. Indications such as starting a test while the officer is still explaining, or stopping in the middle of the evaluation to ask questions affect your results negatively. 

Here are the below clues the officer is looking for when conducting your field sobriety testing: 

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN): 

Most people think this is a test of following a pen.  It is not.  The HGN test is an evaluation of the involuntary muscles that hold the eye in place.

There are 6 clues for HGN, 3 for each eye. The officer is checking your pupils to see if there is any nystagmus. Nystagmus is commonly understood to be the jumping of the pupils. Imagine a car with its windshield wipers on in the rain; the wipers move smoothly over the windshield. If you turn your wipers on and it is not raining, the wipers tend to jump as they go across a windshield. This is analogous to what an officer sees during the HGN test.

1.    Lack of Smooth Pursuit

2.    Distinct Nystagmus at Maximum Deviation

3.    The onset ofNystagmus prior to 45 degrees

Walk and Turn: 

The officer is looking to see if you can follow specific instructions and maintain your balance.  It is important to listen to the instructions given by the officer very carefully. He or she will instruct you on the number of steps (9) and the unnatural way he or she will want you to turn. Here are the exact clues the officer will be evaluating you on: 

1.    Cannot keep balance during instructional phase 

2.    Begins testing before instructed to do so

3.    Stops while walking

4.    Misses heel to toe

5.    Steps off the line

6.    Uses arms for balance 

7.    Improper turn

8.    Taking the wrong number of steps.

One Leg Stand: 

The officer will be evaluating you on your balance over the course of 30 seconds. He or she will instruct you to count out loud while you balance on one foot. Here are the clues he or she will be looking for: 

1.    Swaying

2.    Using Arms for Balance

3.    Hopping

4.    Puts Foot Down

There are Defenses to a Georgia DUI:

Many of our clients do poorly on field sobriety testing because the tests are unfair.  Police officers will also tell our clients that they are doing well, to encourage people to continue testing.   

When a person does poorly on field sobriety testing, that can be many. Factors such as an officer's misleading or faulty instruction, balance issues, learning disabilities, the type of surface or shoes the person is wearing, can all affect the outcome of the evaluation.  

If you have been arrested for a DUI and you did poorly on field sobriety testing, your case may not be hopeless. There are many legal and factual defenses your attorney can evaluate to see if they apply in your case. We understand the unfairness of field sobriety testing.  An experienced Georgia DUI Attorney knows how to fight your case or get you the best possible outcome despite your results on field sobriety testing. 

Practice Note:

To my fellow Georgia DUI Lawyers, remember that the police officer who has accused your client of a DUI does not know the appearance, demeanor, and physical abilities of your client when in a sober state, to get a baseline.

Many of my clients have speech impediments, issues with balance, and medical problems that mimic impairment.  Remember, our biggest advantage is the truth.  Do a full evaluation of your client to get a baseline, and then use that information in your Georgia DUI Defense.   

About the Author

Richard Lawson

Managing Partner at Lawson & Berry:


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