Articles Posted in Field Sobriety Tests

When stopped on a DWI charge in New York, the investigating officer will conduct what are known as “Standardized Field Sobriety Tests.” (SFTS) These tests are utilized by law enforcement officers to establish probable cause prior to the arrest of a driver who is suspected of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. A standardized field sobriety test is one of three separate tests which were designed to, and allegedly can successfully, predict a driver’s level of impairment. The SFST was created based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research. The NHTSA sponsors a formal field sobriety test training program designed to teach police how to more accurately detect individuals who are potentially driving while intoxicated (DWI). The NHTSA’s field sobriety test program is administered by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The three components of a standard field sobriety test are the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), the walk-and-turn (WAT), and the one-leg stand (OLS). HGN testing evaluates an allegedly intoxicated driver’s natural eye movements. The human eye involuntarily jerks when gazing too far to the side. In an allegedly intoxicated driver, the natural jerking motion occurs at a lesser angle than under normal circumstances. During the HGN, a police officer will evaluate how a driver’s eyes track a slowly moving object such as a flashlight or pencil. Throughout the exercise, the officer is examining whether the driver has the ability to follow the object smoothly and at what angle involuntary jerking of the eye occurs. According to NHTSA research, the HGN is capable of accurately predicting a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 (the standard for intoxication in New York and many other states) about 88 percent of the time. This testing may not successfully establish alcohol impairment, however, as seizure medications and other drugs can also affect a driver’s ability to track slow moving objects. Further, if the driver has allergies or recently suffered a concussion, (which the officer is required to inquire about but often do not), the test results will likely not be accurate.

Both the WAT and OLS tests are “Divided attention tests”< which measure both the driver's ability to perform physical tasks and follow instructions at the same time. Both examinations require an allegedly intoxicated driver to simultaneously listen, follow instructions, and perform specific physical movements. Normally, most individuals who have consumed alcohol will find the tasks more difficult to perform than those who have not.

A WAT test requires a driver to take nine heel-to-toe steps along a straight line, turn on one foot and repeat the exercise in the opposite direction. During the test, a law enforcement officer is examining a driver’s balance and ability to follow directions. According to NHTSA research, a failed WAT test accurately predicts a blood alcohol level of .08 approximately 79 percent of the time. An OLS examination requires a driver who is suspected of being intoxicated to stand on one foot and count aloud for about 30 seconds. During the test, a police officer is again watching the driver’s ability to maintain their balance. According to the NHTSA, the OLS test can accurately predict a blood alcohol level of .08 in approximately 83 percent of cases.

A DWI charge in the State of New York can result in serious repercussions for a driver. Most individuals who are accused of DWI fear they will lose their driving privileges, or are concerned that losing their license will cause a loss of employment and consequential implications for their families. If you are charged with DWI felony DWI under Leandra’s Law or any other impaired driving charge, you need to consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

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We all know someone who has been pulled over by the police and charged with New York DWI or another drunk driving charge such as DWAI (Driving While Ability Impaired). During the course of this arrest for driving while intoxicated, the officer will request that the driver perform what are known as “Field Sobriety Tests.” The theory behind these tests, which are known as “divided attention tests”, is that a motorist who has been drinking will not be able to successfully perform them, and/or will be unable to follow the instructions given to them by the officer. The three Field Sobriety Tests that are standardized, and most commonly used, are the Walk & Turn Test, Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, and One Leg Stand. In subsequent blogs, we will go into more detail as to each New York Field Sobriety Test, but a brief description of each follows.

The Walk & Turn involves walking along a designated straight line for 9 steps heel to toe, turning in a manner directed by the officer, and then walking back along the same line for 9 steps. Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is a test in which the motorist is required to follow with their eyes a pen or pointer (known as the stimulus) as the officer moves it back and forth to determine if there is distinct jerking of the eyes (nystagmus), rather than what is known as “smooth pursuit” of the stimulus. The One Leg Stand has the driver stand with legs together and arms at their sides, then lifting one leg straight out, six inches off the ground, for a count of 30 seconds.

Numerous clues which the officer will then check for to determine if the motorist has passed these tests (on the Walk and Turn or One Leg Stand) are an inability to keep balance, using arms to balance, swaying, failing to count, simply failing to start when directed or not following instructions. Obviously these tests, although called “Standardized”, are highly subjective, as whether the person passes or fails is determined solely by an officer looking to substantiate his arrest. Further, there are numerous factors which could affect the results, including, to name a few, medical conditions that the driver might suffer from–epilepsy, vertigo, inner ear disorders; their physical condition, (such as being overweight or elderly), the side effects of medications or how much sleep the driver had the night before.

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