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Field sobriety tests and DWI: The basics

Red and blue flashing lights in the rear view mirror can be a sobering sight. This is particularly true if you had a drink or two before getting behind the wheel. As disturbing as getting stopped may be, it is important that those who are pulled over and accused of operating a vehicle while intoxicated realize that they have rights.

One of those rights is to refuse to take a field sobriety test.

What exactly is a field sobriety test? A field sobriety test is essentially any one of several roadside tests that is used by enforcement officers in an effort to gather evidence of impairment and support an arrest for a DWI/DUI.

In many cases officers will use a three part test referred to as the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST). This test is supported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The three parts used during this test include:

  • Eye gaze. This is when an officer asks you to follow the flashlight or pencil or other moving object with your eyes. The officer is looking to see how your eyes react to the movement. Two things the officer is watching for include whether your eyes can follow the moving object and whether there is any jerking of the eye.
  • Walk-and-turn. This test generally involves taking nine heel-to-toe steps, turning on one foot and repeating the nine heel-to-toe steps back. The officer is watching for a number of factors that are supposed to indicate impairment, including beginning the test without listening to all the directions, using arms for added balance or taking an incorrect number of steps.
  • One-leg stand. Here, you are asked to stand on one foot with the other approximately six inches off the ground. You are then asked to count by ones from one-thousand until told to stop. This is observed for thirty seconds. Some signs the officer is watching for include swaying, hopping to maintain balance or putting the foot down.

Many of the indicators of intoxication could be present in a person that has not consumed alcohol. Even so, it is important to note that the results of these tests generally stand in court.

Am I required to take a field sobriety test? No, you are not required to take this test. If you are pulled over and the officer suspects that you have been drinking the officer may ask you to participate in this test. You can politely decline.

If the stop results in an arrest, it is wise to seek legal counsel. Your attorney can protect your rights and provide an assertive defense, better ensuring a more favorable outcome. 

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