When you are stopped for a New York DWI, the investigating officer is required to make an initial determination whether your driving is impaired by alcohol, drugs or a combination of the two. The initial basis for the traffic stop is premised on whether the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the motorist is impaired due to erratic driving, a specific traffic infraction, or observations that the driver is slumped in his or her seat, for example.
The officer will then observe the manner in which you stop your vehicle after you are notified to pull over—was it jerky, a short stop, or did it take you a long time to come to a stop? Other observations at this time might include how far you stopped from a curb, striking the curb, or moving to the side of the road in a haphazard fashion. When the officer requests that you exit your vehicle, there are three generally recognized standardized field sobriety tests (SFST) which you will be asked to take. Field sobriety tests are in essence divided attention tests, meaning that they are designed to determine if you can follow directions as well as perform tasks which require balance, coordination, and clear vision, among other things.
The three standardized field sobriety tests are the walk and turn, the one leg stand, and the horizontal gaze nystagmus. The theory is that these tests, either individually or in conjunction with each other, will correctly determine which drivers are impaired by alcohol or drugs. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the HGN correctly determines in 77% of cases if a driver has a BAC of 0.10% or above, the walk and turn is accurate in 68% of cases, and the one leg stand correctly predicts 65% of intoxicated drivers.
In this article, we will focus on the walk and turn. The two stages of this divided attention test are the instructions, followed by the walking section. For the instructions, the driver must stand with his/her feet in a heel to toe position, with their arms at their sides, and listen to the instructions. The person must keep his/her attention divided between remembering the instructions and keeping their balance and staying on the line.
The instructions are to walk 9 steps heel to toe on a designated straight line, without using the arms for balance, and counting the steps aloud, and then use the back foot to make small steps to turn around while keeping the front foot on the line, and then walk 9 steps along that same line, again counting the steps and not using the arms for balance. The walking segment combines the balancing of walking heel to toe on a straight line and turning on the back foot, along with the memory requirements of remembering how many steps they took and how to perform the turn.
To be blunt, even people with good balance who have no alcohol in their system could have difficulties with the walk and turn test, particularly if they have physical disabilities, or have vertigo or other inner ear problems. Additionally, although the officer is required to conduct the test on a flat, dry surface, away from the cruiser’s flashing lights, and away from traffic, which could be distracting, frequently these requirements are disregarded by the officer for the sake of expediency.
The key to passing this test (which almost never occurs based upon the reports of these tests prepared by local police officers) is that the person must avoid the following:
Not being able to maintain balance while listening to the instructions;
Starting too soon;
Stopping while walking the nine steps;
Stepping off the line while walking;
Not maintaining heel to toe;
Using arms to balance;
Losing balance on the turn or doing the turn wrong;
Taking an incorrect amount of steps.
If the person falls off the line 3 or more times, loses his balance, can’t remain on the line, or can’t compete the test for any other reason, they will fail the walk and turn.