If you are pulled over by a police officer, they may only ask you to take a field sobriety test (FST) if they have reasonable cause to believe that you are driving under the influence. Among many other signs, reasonable causes may arise if you were swerving between lanes or braking erratically. However, even if an officer pulls you over for a reason that is not indicative of impairment, such as driving with an expired tag, they have the right to ask you to submit to a field sobriety test if they see signs of impairment upon making personal contact with you, such as smelling alcohol on your breath, observing you slurring your speech, or watching you experience coordination issues. Nevertheless, you have the right to refuse a field sobriety test.
If you refuse a field sobriety test, you may be requested to undergo chemical testing to determine your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Chemical testing includes administration of a breathalyzer, blood, or urine test. In Nebraska, the state’s “implied consent” laws mean that by obtaining a driver’s license, you have already given your implied consent to submit to chemical testing if you are lawfully arrested on suspicion of DUI.
If you refuse to submit to a BAC chemical test, you will be charged with a Class V misdemeanor and, just like anyone who agrees to a chemical test and receives a BAC score at or above the state’s limit of 0.08%, you will be arrested for DUI.
Types of Field Sobriety Tests
If a police officer suspects you are driving while intoxicated, they will often initiate a traffic stop and ask you to perform field sobriety tests to determine whether you are driving impaired. If you struggle to properly complete one or more of these tests, you may be arrested for DUI.
The U.S. Department of Justice considers the following to be the three most reliable types of field sobriety tests:
- Horizontal-gaze-nystagmus test: This test involves an officer moving a stimulus from side to side in front of the driver and observing the driver’s eyes for involuntary bouncing or jerking. The horizontal gaze nystagmus test provides the most scientific validity when determining a driver’s intoxication.
- Walk-and-turn test: In this test, an officer asks the driver to walk in a straight line with their feet placed heel to toe, followed by a turn and walk back in the same manner. Police will check to see if the driver has difficulty maintaining their balance.
- One-leg stand test: In this test, the driver must stand with one leg six inches off the ground for 30 seconds, during which police look for indicators of impairment, such as swaying or using the arms to maintain balance.
How Reliable are Field Sobriety Tests?
Police officers may use field sobriety test results as evidence in court; however, these tests should not be considered objective indicators of legal intoxication for a number of reasons. First, consider their reliability. Tests sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provided the following reliability ratings for field sobriety tests:
- Horizontal-gaze-nystagmus test: 77%
- Walk-and-turn test: 68%
- One-leg stand test: 65%
Despite the intended uniformity of the testing process, where law enforcement conducts and evaluates each test consistently, there is limited evidence supporting the actual implementation of this standardization in real-world scenarios.
True standardization would require officers to verbally deliver the test instructions to each individual at the scene and adhere to a predefined scoring rubric, similar to the administration and scoring of standardized IQ tests. This, however, is rarely the case in practice, and it’s often argued in court by lawyers that officers deviated from the standardized procedure, thus rendering the test unreliable.
The consensus among legal experts is that in the majority of instances when an officer pulls over an individual suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, the decision to arrest the individual has essentially been made. The field sobriety test is primarily used to establish a basis for the arrest in a court of law. However, these tests are simply not objective indicators that the driver was intoxicated.
Can Someone Who Hasn’t Been Drinking Fail a Field Sobriety Test?
While field sobriety tests are considered to be effective tools for identifying individuals who may be intoxicated, there several reasons why a sober person may fail them:
Nervousness or anxiety: Being pulled over by the police can be a stressful experience, and nervousness or anxiety can affect a person’s performance on tests. Stress can lead to shaky hands, impaired concentration, and physical tension, all of which can impact performance.
Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions can affect a person’s balance, coordination, and cognitive functions, making it difficult to perform standardized tests accurately. Conditions such as inner ear disorders, neurological disorders, and injuries can influence test results.
Fatigue: Being tired or fatigued can impair reaction times, coordination, and overall performance. This can mimic some of the signs of intoxication that officers look for during field sobriety tests.
Age and physical fitness: Age can impact a person’s balance and coordination, and physical fitness levels can also affect performance. Older individuals might struggle with some more physically demanding tasks, like standing on one leg.
Footwear and surface conditions: Field sobriety tests are often conducted on the side of the road, which might have uneven or slippery surfaces. Additionally, if the person is wearing uncomfortable or inappropriate footwear, it can affect their ability to perform the tests correctly.
Misunderstanding the test instructions: Some people might not fully understand the instructions provided by the officer or might not be familiar with the specific tasks involved in the tests. Misunderstanding the instructions can lead to mistakes.
Language barriers: If the person being tested doesn’t speak the same language as the officer or doesn’t understand the instructions clearly, they may not perform the tests correctly.
Weather conditions: Adverse weather conditions, such as rain, wind, or extreme temperatures, can impact a person’s ability to maintain balance and perform physical tasks during the tests.
Mental state: If a person is distracted, preoccupied, or dealing with emotional stress, their focus and attention might be compromised during the tests.
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What Happens if I Fail a Field Sobriety Test?
If you fail a sobriety test, you may be arrested for DUI or asked to undergo chemical testing to detect alcohol or drugs in your system. Remember, you impliedly consented to submit to chemical testing if you are suspected of DUI when you obtained your Nebraska driver’s license, so you cannot refuse a BAC test without facing consequences.
Why You Need an Omaha DUI Defense Attorney
If a police officer asks you to submit to a field sobriety test, you have the right to refuse testing. Unfortunately, there may be consequences. But you also have the right to legal representation.