Understanding Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

Most people are familiar with what happens during a traffic stop if a police officer suspects you have been driving under the influence of alcohol. An officer will usually begin by asking you if you have been drinking, and will likely follow that question up by asking you to get out of your vehicle and perform what are known as roadside sobriety tests, which are tests developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to be administered to individuals suspected of drunk driving. Understanding these tests is an important part of understanding your rights and in defending against potential Colorado DUI charges.

Standardized Field Sobriety Test

There are several roadside testing options available to law enforcement officials. However, the three most popular ones make up the Standardized Field Sobriety Test. These are:

  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (“HGN”): The HGN is an involuntary jerking in the eye that naturally occurs when you move your eyes to the side. Usually this occurs when individuals move their eyes to the side at abrupt angles, but alcohol impairment can lead to this effect at lesser angles. Often this test is conducted by an officer asking you to follow a pen or flashlight with your eyes as the object moves from side to side. During this test, law enforcement officers will also try to determine whether or not a person has difficulty tracking an object as well as whether HGN is occurring.
  • Standing on One Leg: This is one of two tests given to divide your attention between two different tasks. Usually, it involves an officer asking you to raise one foot a certain distance off the ground and maintain balance for 30 seconds while counting. An officer typically looks to see if a person is able to maintain their balance without swaying, hopping, using arms for balance, or needing to put their foot back down on the ground.
  • Walk and Turn: Another of the divided attention tests employed by law enforcement officials, this test generally asks a person to take nine heel-to-toe steps in a straight line, pivot back on one foot, and return to where you started in the same way. Law enforcement officers are supposed to observe this test and look for eight different signs of impairment throughout the test such as not walking in a straight line, not walking heel-to-toe, or stopping during the test to regain balance.

While these tests may seem straightforward, they are usually much harder than they sound. Any number of variables can affect how well a person performs any given test, such as weather conditions or an uneven roadside surface. Additionally, medical conditions can also have an impact on how well a person performs these tests. Sometimes, police officers will also give suspects misleading or confusing directions to make the tests more difficult and ensure that they can find the necessary number of impairment indicators. While the Standardized Field Sobriety Test is widely used and recognized, it is not necessarily an accurate indicator of whether or not a person is intoxicated especially if law enforcement officials conducting the tests have not been properly trained to do so.

Nature of the Tests

One important thing to remember is that these roadside tests are voluntary as opposed to chemical testing which is mandatory. In other words, by holding a driver’s license you agree to submit to chemical testing and refusal to do so can result in automatic suspension of your license – but you do not have to perform roadside sobriety testing. If you choose to perform the roadside tests, any findings from them can and likely will be used against you.

Legal Assistance with DUI-Related Charges

DUI-related charges are serious criminal charges in Colorado, especially for repeat offenders. Facing DUI-related charges can be intimidating, but you do not have to face such charges alone. If you have been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, it is important to remember that you still have rights that must be protected. Working with an experienced DUI criminal defense team is an important step in ensuring your rights were not violated and that you are able to provide a strong defense. If you are facing these types of charges, contact the Colorado criminal defense team at Tiftickjian Law Firm to schedule a consultation where you can find out more about what options might be available to you.  

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(image courtesy of Liam Welch)