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Field Sobriety Tests in DUI Charges

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It’s an iconic part of a DUI investigation: the series of exercises often known as field sobriety tests (FSE). The investigating officer makes the suspect walk and turn, stand on one leg, or follow an object with their eyes to prove they aren’t intoxicated.

These “tests” aren’t reliable – indeed, they’re not really tests at all, just field sobriety exercises (FSE). They shouldn’t be material to a DUI charge. However, if the prosecution can use the FSE results to convince a jury, your future is in peril. That’s why it’s important to hire a DUI defense attorney who knows how to attack their arguments.

What are the field sobriety exercises?

“Field sobriety tests” are standardized exercises that police officers instruct drivers suspected of DUI to perform to show they are not intoxicated. The standard field sobriety exercises are:

  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN): The officer holds an object 12-15 inches from the suspect’s nose and moves it from side to side. As the suspect follows the object with their eyes, the officer looks for involuntary jerking movement of the eyeballs.
  • Walk-and-Turn: The suspect is instructed to take nine heel-to-toe steps forward, turn, and take nine heel-to-toe steps back.
  • One-Leg Stand: The suspect is instructed to stand with one foot six inches off the ground and count aloud by thousands until told to put the foot down.

Again, the field sobriety exercises are supposed to be standardized, meaning officers everywhere should give the same instructions and score the exercise the same way. In practice, that’s often not the case. Moreover, even when the exercise is performed according to protocol, the results may be unreliable. Here, for instance, are the unedited instructions that a police officer gives a suspect for the walk and turn:

Place your left foot on the line (demonstrate). Place your right foot on the line ahead of the left foot, with heel of right foot against toe of left foot (demonstrate). Place your arms down at your sides (demonstrate). Maintain this position until I have completed the instructions. DO NOT START to walk until told to do so. Do you understand the instructions so far? (Make sure DUI suspect indicates understanding). When I tell you to start, take 9 heel-to-toe steps, turn, and take 9 heel-to-toe steps back (demonstrate 3 heel-to-toe steps). When you turn, keep the left front foot on the line, and turn by taking a series of small steps with the other foot, like this (demonstrate). While you are walking, keep your arms at your sides, watch your feet at all times, and count steps out loud. Once you start walking, don’t stop until you have completed the test. Do you understand the instructions? (make sure DUI suspect understands). Begin, and count your first step from the heel-to-toe position as “one.”

That’s a lot of instructions for even a completely sober person to follow under ideal conditions, and a DUI traffic stop is hardly an ideal situation. These exercises are performed under the threat of arrest, usually in a dark area, often on only an imaginary line, while traffic is speeding past, by a driver who has never heard the instructions before. How does anxiety affect your ability? Medical issues? Cars whipping by the side of the road? It’s easy to make a false start or put a foot out of line just because of sheer anxiety, not impairment. And the bar to pass the test is unreasonably high. If you make just two mistakes in this entire complex exercise, you fail.

Not to mention, the results of these exercises are immaterial to the legal definition of DUI. The legal standard for driving under the influence in Florida is “impairment of normal faculties.” Do you normally walk heel-to-toe or stand on one leg for 30 seconds? These exercises have nothing to do with your “normal faculties” and shouldn’t be treated as legally significant evidence of impairment.

That’s why you need a DUI defense attorney who knows how to protect your rights and undercut the prosecution’s argument.

Your attorney can explain to a jury what really matters in a DUI case.

Remember, field sobriety exercises are optional in Florida. You have the right to refuse any and all field sobriety exercises. Refusing the FSE is not a crime. The officer will just have to make a decision whether to arrest you based on the other available evidence. If you did “fail” a field sobriety exercise, though, that’s just one more reason to get strong legal representation.

You need an experienced DUI attorney who knows how these field sobriety exercises are supposed to be given and graded and has the manual in hand ready to use in court for you. An effective DUI lawyer can attack the FSTs in court and explain to a jury that it’s not how a suspected drunk driver performs the FSTs, but his normal faculties that matter. These field sobriety exercises have nothing to do with a driver’s normal abilities to drive a car, walk, or maintain balance.

Don’t assume your case is unwinnable based on the field sobriety exercises or any other evidence against you. Give me a call at 863-688-4606 or use the contact form on this site to set up a free consultation.

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