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Could you pass a field sobriety test?

Scholars and analysts who study the criminal justice system have long had concerns about the validity of commonly used field sobriety tests.

Police continue to use such tests as indicators about whether someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. As we will discuss in this post, however, there are several serious problems with this approach.

What is a field sobriety test?

The standard field sobriety test is a series of three separate challenges that officers use to measure your balance and coordination. They include:

  • One-leg stand: You need to stand on one leg and count without losing balance.
  • Walk-and-turn: You walk along a straight line and then turn to walk back along the same line without using your arms for balance.
  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN): You look where the officer tells you as the officer watches your eyes for any involuntary jerking. This case is inadmissible in Tennessee.

During the test, officers will look for signs that your balance, coordination and attention may be impaired. If they spot enough clues, they may arrest you for driving under the influence.

Field sobriety tests are not failproof

The problem with field sobriety tests is that they're not always accurate. Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) pointed this out during its roll-out of the tests:

  • The one-leg stand fails as a test more than one-third of the time
  • The walk-and-turn fails nearly as often-32% of the time
  • The HGN offers better results, but still fails nearly one-quarter of the time
  • he NHTSA says that when all three challenges are used together, they are 82% accurate-and still wrong roughly one-fifth of the time

It's also important to remember, as a report from Connecticut points out, that police tested these challenges in a lab. The subjects didn't have to worry about wind, cold or loose gravel. They didn't have to try to hear the officers over the sounds of traffic, and they weren't anxious about possibly getting arrested.

Certain groups are more likely to fail these tests while sober

The truth is that people have different abilities and circumstances. Just as most people will never play for the NFL or NBA, some people will have a harder time listening, balancing and managing the other parts of a field sobriety test. These can include:

  • Elderly people, especially over 65 years-old
  • People with back or inner-ear problems that might affect their balance
  • People who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • People who are 50 or more pounds overweight
  • Anyone wearing high-heeled shoes

This is not an exhaustive list. There are many other people who may struggle with a field sobriety test in the best of conditions.

Don't fall prey to a faulty test

In short, field sobriety tests are often faulty. To learn more, reach out to an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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