Are “Field Sobriety Tests” Valid?

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on November 16th, 2005

Has the media finally stopped buying into the propaganda from MADD and begun independently investigating the truth? Following a recent story in the Washington Post critical of Washington DC’s "zero tolerance" laws, now comes another another Post story openly questioning the validity of "field sobriety tests" — a validity which I’ve repeatedly challenged on this blog (see, for example, "Field Sobriety Tests: Designed for Failure").

DUI Hokeypokey

Police, Lawyers And Scientists Engage in a Clumsy Dance Over the Merits Of Roadside Sobriety Tests

November 15. Stand up! Heels together. Toes out. Hands at your sides. Raise the leg of your choice right in front of you, six inches off the ground, leg straight, toe pointed. Keep your eyes on your raised toe and begin counting aloud from 1,001 until I say stop. Do you understand? Begin. One thousand one. One thousand two . . Keep going

Some dark night on the side of the road, police lights flashing in your peripheral vision, your freedom may depend on how well you do this. Did you sway? Raise your arms for balance? How about hop? Or put your foot down? If you did any two, a police officer will conclude with 65 percent accuracy, as stipulated in the prevailing science of inebriation diagnostics, that you may be too drunk to drive.

And if you bent your leg, stared straight ahead instead of at your foot or began before I said so, you may be in trouble. Police officers are taught that people under the influence of alcohol don’t follow directions well. If you made it through 30 seconds ramrod straight, congratulations! You may not be drunk. This is the one-leg stand — OLS in cop-speak. It is one of the three scientifically researched standardized field sobriety tests, blessed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that officers call "the holy grail" and give on the side of the road to help them decide whether to make a drunk driving arrest….

The one-leg stand has its skeptics and its court challenges, and plenty of them, but, according to NHTSA, the test is "easily performed by most unimpaired people." Oh, really? On a recent sunny afternoon in Dupont Circle, Franklin Urena, 32, a waiter at Chevy’s, couldn’t do it. "I have flat feet," he explained as he started hopping at the count of 1,021. His friend, Henry Van Dyke, 50, didn’t make it past the count of 1,003. "Maybe if I had a glass of wine I could do better because I wouldn’t be so self-conscious," he said. "I have no coordination."

Christine Ju, Elisa Catalano and Justin Sullivan, all in their early thirties, balanced well but didn’t follow directions. "What an absurd test," sniffed Catalano, a yoga teacher. In a completely unscientific test of 14 random people, five passed, seven failed and two were judgment calls — one because he counted quickly in Italian and the other because it was unclear whether her wobbles would count as a sway….

So hundreds of thousands of drivers have been arrested — no doubt many deservedly so — on the basis of a 30-year-old study [by Marcelline Burns] that, critics argue, has never been published in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal, never tested on a large scale with a control group and, perhaps more astonishing, has nothing to do with actual impairment from alcohol…..

Some forensic psychologists and, understandably, a slew of DWI defense attorneys have been assiduously picking apart Burns’s research on the standardized field sobriety tests for years….Troll the Internet, and you will quickly find disparaging reports with titles like "Field Sobriety Tests: Designed for Failure"…. But she is unmoved. "We’re now 30 years past the development of the test. They’re widely used by police officers. Why would they use them if they don’t help them make a proper decision?" she said. "These defense attorneys write all this stuff, but never once do they suggest an optional test. What do they want the officer to do? Toss a coin?"

Not at all, says Spurgeon Cole, a forensic scientist and consultant in Georgia who has been her chief nemesis in court and expert witness for the defense for years. But maybe videotapes in patrol cars, he argues, would help remove some of the subjectivity. "We have no idea how well a sober person can perform on the SFST [field tests]. How does age or gender affect performance? How does fatigue or practice affect performance?" he has written. "Without answers to these basic questions, the SFST remain in the same category as tarot cards."

Cole did his own study, administering the tests to 21 of his students at Clemson University in South Carolina — none of whom had had a drop of alcohol — and then showing the videotape of their performance to a group of officers. They officers reported they’d arrest nearly half the students. "And these people had absolutely zero to drink," Cole said in an interview. "These tests are absolutely worthless."

(Thanks to George Bianchi of Seattle.)

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