Failing the Field Sobriety Tests without Being Drunk

Posted by Jon Ibanez on July 11th, 2016

Field sobriety tests and DUI stops go hand in hand. In fact, field sobriety tests are the things that my clients most closely associate with a DUI stop. Yet, very few people know that they are optional. Because most people mistakenly believe that they are mandatory, they take them and “fail” even though they may not even be under the influence.

So how does a person fail the field sobriety tests while without even being under the influence?

Law enforcement agencies in California and throughout the country use a number of field sobriety tests to gauge a person’s coordination, balance, and simple motor skills. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has approved three field sobriety tests as “standardized.” These test include the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test, the Walk-and-Turn Test, and the One-Leg Stand Test. However, police officers also use non-approved field sobriety tests to gather the probable cause necessary to make a DUI arrest. Those tests include the Rhomberg Balance Test, the Finger-to-Nose Test, and the Finger Tap Test.

Although field sobriety tests are intended to gauge a person’s coordination, balance, and simple motor skills after having consumed alcohol, standardized or not, field sobriety test can be unreliable for a number of reasons.

Tiredness:

We all know that driving tired is dangerous. However, while it may be dangerous, it is not illegal. When a person is tired, they exhibit many of the same symptoms of intoxication. Poor coordination, lack of balance, and trouble with motor skills are symptoms of both tiredness and intoxication. Whether the symptoms come from tiredness or intoxication, they can cause a person to fail field sobriety tests. What’s worse is that when a person is tired, they also display other symptoms of intoxication that officers often look for during a DUI stop; bloodshot water eyes and slurred speech.

Physical Problems:

Many people experience physical problems or disabilities which may affect how a person performs on field sobriety tests. Problems such as knee or back pain would make it difficult to perform the physical requirements of field sobriety tests.

People who are older or over weight, may have trouble performing the field sobriety tests for the same reasons.

Balance Problems:

Many times people are suspected of driving drunk following a vehicle collision and are often given field sobriety tests shortly after the collision. Poor performance on the field sobriety tests is attributed to intoxication rather than the after-effects of a vehicle collision.

Without even knowing it, many people suffer from inner ear problems. The inner ear contains a small organ called the labyrinth that helps people maintain balance. When the labyrinth is disrupted, so too is that person’s balance. Some of the things that can disrupt the labyrinth include infections and illness, head trauma, age, and tumors, to name a few.

Nervousness:

Have you ever been pulled over? We you nervous? My guess is that you answered yes to both questions. It goes without saying that people are nervous and stressed when they get pulled over. When people are nervous and stressed, they have difficulty concentrating. Unfortunately, concentration is a key component in completing the field sobriety tests. Officers will “fail” a person if they cannot follow instructions in performing the field sobriety tests even though it was due to a lack of concentration, not intoxication.

Officer Interpretation:

Much of the time, officers have already made up their minds that a person is driving under the influence when they make the DUI stop. This pre-conceived notion in conjunction with a psychological phenomenon called the “confirmation bias” causes the officer to interpret field sobriety test performance as “failing” regardless of how the person actually performs.

 

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