Challenging Field Sobriety Tests

Police officer giving sobriety test to young man - challenging field sobriety tests concept

If you’ve been pulled over by law enforcement on suspicion that you were operating your vehicle under the influence of alcohol, you may be asked to perform field sobriety tests. However, these tests are not based on science — they are dependent on the arresting officer’s observations. While a failed field sobriety test can be used by the prosecutor in court to prove a driver’s actual impairment, it’s important to understand that it is also possible to challenge the results of a field sobriety test.

What are Standardized Field Sobriety Tests?

Field sobriety tests are meant to assist law enforcement with detecting whether you are impaired by alcohol. They involve performing specific physical movements that are difficult to carry out while under the influence. However, these tests are based on the officer’s subjective opinions — and they are not always reliable. There can be many reasons a person fails a field sobriety test, including nervousness, illness, or physical impairment.

There are three types of standardized field sobriety tests that are commonly used in North Carolina. These include the following:

  • The horizontal nystagmus test — The horizontal gaze nystagmus test allows an officer to measure whether there is any involuntary twitching or jerking in your eyes as you follow a stimulus. While there is always a small amount of nystagmus, it becomes more pronounced if you are under the influence of alcohol.
  • The walk and turn test — With the walk and turn test, an officer may ask you to take nine heel-to-toe steps in a straight line, turn, and then take nine heel-to-toe steps back. As you do so, the officer will be looking for clues that you are intoxicated and assessing your ability to balance.
  • The one leg stand test — During the one leg stand test, a police officer will ask you to stand on one leg with your hands at your sides. The purpose is to assess how well you are able to balance. Any swaying or imbalance will typically be deemed a sign of intoxication.

In addition, there are a number of non-standardized field sobriety tests that are sometimes used. These may include the Romberg balance test, saying the alphabet, counting backwards, putting your finger to your nose, or counting on your fingers. Although these tests are not recognized by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration or approved in North Carolina, they may be used by an officer while you are still in the vehicle to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to ask for a formal field sobriety test.

What Happens if You Fail a Field Sobriety Test?

If you fail a field sobriety test, the police officer who administered it will act on probable cause and arrest you for the offense of driving while intoxicated. However, since it would be a challenge to prosecute a DWI on a failed field sobriety test alone, the officer will likely also ask you to submit to a breath or blood test. Unlike with refusing a breath test, there are no license consequences when it comes to refusing a field sobriety test. Critically, if you refuse a breathalyzer, your license may be automatically suspended by the DMV — regardless of whether you were intoxicated. It’s essential to discuss the best course of action with an experienced DWI attorney.

How to Challenge Field Sobriety Tests

Even though the results of a failed test can be used in court, a good DWI attorney will know how to challenge a field sobriety test. For example, if the officer who administered the test failed to ask about a physical or mental condition that could impact the results, the test may be contested. Significantly, there are many neurological disorders, foot problems, and medications that can affect the outcome of a field sobriety test. In addition, some people simply have issues with balance, regardless of whether they have consumed alcohol or not.

A field sobriety test may also be challenged if the officer did not perform the test properly or follow the appropriate guidelines. For instance, if the police officer omitted a portion of the test instructions or did not know how to assess actual clues of intoxication, your attorney will know how to raise these police errors. In some cases, an expert witness may be brought in who can explain the poor outcome or unreliability of a field sobriety test to a jury.

Contact an Experienced North Carolina DWI Attorney

Challenging a field sobriety test can be complex — and if you’ve been charged with driving while intoxicated, it’s best to have a skillful attorney by your side who can contest the results and defend your rights. The Johnston County DWI defense attorneys at Reece & Reece, Attorneys at Law provide relentless representation and adept advocacy for a variety of criminal and traffic-related offenses, including DWIs. Call (919) 300-1249 to schedule a consultation and learn how we can assist you.

Categories: DUI/DWI