What is the purpose of the field sobriety test?
Generally, what happens when a driver is stopped is the officer, if he suspects any kind of drinking and driving issues, OWI or DUI, they will ask you to step out of the car and conduct a field sobriety test.
Now usually what they tell you is they want to make sure that you’re okay to drive, but in reality the purpose of the field sobriety test is to start gathering evidence against you so that they can use it against you in a drunk-driving case, and more particularly, in order to create probable cause to arrest you for an OWI or a drunk-driving case.
At what point is it administered?
Usually right after they stop you. The typical case, they stop a car for some perceived civil infraction or road violation, then they ask you for your driver’s license and registration, and then if the officer happens to smell any alcohol or if it just happens to be late at night, they will ask you, “Have you been drinking?”
As soon as the driver says, “Yeah, I’ve had two drinks,” then the officer goes into the mode of trying to gather evidence to find out whether or not there’s an Operating While Intoxicated or DUI. At that point, they usually say, “Will you step out of the car? I just want to conduct a few tests to make sure you’re okay,” and thus it begins.
How often do police officers miscommunicate certain aspects of these field sobriety tests and how are some things misinterpreted by the individual?
Typically, each officer has a few tests that they like to perform. More often than not, the police cars have videotapes in them, and the videotape points directly ahead, straight ahead. The police officer usually will like to position the driver in front of his vehicle. A good, well-trained officer will make sure that they clearly explain what is expected before they administer the test and they will demonstrate it as well so that when the driver performs the test, if they don’t do it right or if they look drunk, he’s captured all that evidence on videotape, including the person’s inability to follow directions.
Depending upon the test, a good officer will clearly administer proper directions. An officer who may be new or lazy or just doesn’t worry about the rules that much will give a less clear, more confusing set of instructions, which makes it harder for the driver to properly perform the test, but in that case, it can potentially offer us as the defense a better opportunity to attack the evidence and maybe get some of that evidence suppressed or used to create reasonable doubt in a trial.
Are Field Sobriety Tests something that people are obligated to do?
No. That’s a good question. My general opinion, not one answer always works for every single situation, but I would say in the vast majority of times, the driver who has been drinking should politely refuse to perform any field sobriety test. The reason being is you are giving them evidence to use against you if you don’t do these tests exactly right, and some of these tests are difficult for people to do correctly even if they’re sober. For example, there was a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that was done that concluded almost half of the people administered some of these tests while sober did not technically pass them.
For example, one of the tests that’s often used is the one-legged stand where you stand on one leg and hold the other foot six inches off the ground while counting. That’s pretty hard for a lot of people to do especially if they’ve had any problems with their feet or their back or they’re tired or they’re old or they’re overweight, things like that. For the most part, passing these tests are not usually going to help you, but failing them will hurt you, so it’s generally best to just politely decline to take these tests.