When a police officer pulls you over for suspected driving under the influence (DUI), it can be a nerve-wracking experience, even if you are completely sober. After collecting your license, insurance, and registration they will often ask you to exit the vehicle and will begin conducting one of several DUI field sobriety tests. No matter where you get pulled over, from San Diego to Los Angeles or anywhere else in California, you can expect to have to perform a standardized field sobriety test.
There are several types of field sobriety tests that can be administered during a traffic stop, and one of the most common is known as the walk and turn test. It is also called the 9-step test, and the DUI walk the line test. This is due to the number of steps that the law enforcement official administering the test will have the driver take before turning.
We’re going to take a more in-depth look at this test, including how it is conducted, what the rules are, what the officer will be looking for, and overall how reliable this and other tests may actually be.
Suspected DUI Offenders & Field Sobriety Tests
The primary reason that the walk and turn test is used is that it requires divided attention. This means that the task requires the suspect to maintain attention on both mental and physical tasks which are exceedingly difficult at the point of intoxication. The walk and turn test was designed specifically to require the suspect to listen, remember, and properly execute instructions while engaging in physical movement.
The walk and turn are just one of the standardized field sobriety tests that have been established by the NHTSA, or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The tests are now considered standardized because they have been studied and backed up with statistical evidence over the years. It has been found that they have a strong correlation between test failure and impairment.
There is also the HGN test and the leg stand test. The HGN test is for the evaluation of horizontal gaze nystagmus, which is an involuntary movement of the eyes while following a point of focus along a horizontal plane in their field of vision. The leg stand test tests the subject’s balance while answering questions.
The walk and turn is considered the second most reliable test that the NHTSA has sanctioned. The HGN test is often seen as the most reliable since nystagmus cannot be easily controlled. The leg stand test is seen as the least reliable of the three standardized field sobriety tests.
Instructions for the Walk and Turn Test
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has outlined a set of standardized instructions for law enforcement to be equipped to correctly and competently administer the walk and turn test. The steps are as follows:
- Have the suspect stand heel-to-toe during the instructions.
- Demonstrate placing your left foot on the line.
- Demonstrate placing your right foot on the line ahead of the left foot, with the heel of the right against the toe of the left.
- Demonstrate placing and keeping arms down at your sides.
- Advise the suspect to maintain this position until the end of the instructions and the test begins.
- Verify that the suspect understands the instructions.
- Advise the suspect that when they are told to start, they are to take 9 heel-to-toe steps, then turn, and take 9 heel-to-toe steps back.
- Demonstrate how to pivot on one foot while taking small steps with the other to effect the turn.
- Advise the suspect that while they walk they are to keep their arms at their sides, watch their feet, and count the steps out loud.
- Advise the suspect that once they start walking they are not to stop until finished.
- Verify once more that the suspect understands.
- Advise the suspect to begin, counting from the first heel-to-toe as “one”.
What the Officer is Looking for During a Walk and Turn
The walk and turn test is intended to be most effective with drivers suspected of having a BAC of 0.10% or greater. This level of intoxication will often create a series of scorable mistakes. These clues are each worth 1 point, with the exception of a failure to finish, which is worth 9 points. A suspect only needs 2 points to be classified by the law enforcement agent as DUI.
Each clue will have acceptable and unacceptable variances. Those that are acceptable should not be scored, while those that are over the threshold of acceptance should be scored.
Unable to Maintain Balance During Instructions
Scoring this clue occurs if the suspect is unable or unwilling to maintain the heel-to-toe posture for the duration of the instructions. The officer should not consider this a score if the suspect uses arm movement for balance, or sways but stays in position.
Begins Before Instructions Are Complete
The suspect gets a point for this clue if they begin the test before the officer’s instructions are complete.
Stops Walking to Regain Balance
Stopping for more than a second or two is considered a scorable event, however, the suspect should not be scored if they are simply walking slowly.
Fails to Touch Heel-To-Toe
One point is earned for this clue if the suspect is unable to meet the heel-to-toe requirement by leaving a gap of 0.5” or more on any step. This will also be scored for not walking straight along the line.
Leaves the Demarcation Line
If at any point the suspect leaves the line, they get a point. However, this item can only be scored once even if the mistake is made several times.
Use Arms to Balance
This point is scored if the arms raise more than 6” from the at-sides position to maintain balance. No exceptions.
Loses Balance During Turning
During the turn, if both feet leave the line it is scored. This will also be scored if the turn is not a multi-step pivot as detailed in the instructions, and is instead a one-movement turn.
Taking More or Less Than 9 Steps
This clue is scored if the suspect fails to take 9 steps.
Unable to Complete the Test
If the suspect leaves the line 3 or more times or falls, they have demonstrated a failure.
Appropriate Testing Conditions
The officers are legally required to ensure that the test is conducted in an area or location that allows the test to be completed in a fair and safe manner.
There should be adequate lighting, demonstrated by the suspect being able to see the officer and understand their directions and demonstrations.
The surface should be relatively flat, hard, level, and non-slip. There should be enough room to take the required steps, and there should be no danger of falling or tripping.
The test requires a line or other mark to follow. If there are no lines in the road, the officer may draw one with chalk, draw in the dirt with a stick, or may use a parallel walk along a curb if needed.
Reliability of Field Sobriety Tests Like the Walk and Turn
There are many factors that can impact the effectiveness and accuracy of the walk and turn test, and the NHTSA data shows nearly one in three people fail who are not under the influence.
Impact Of Mental & Physical Impairments or Disabilities
Common reasons for lower reliability include elderly suspects or those who have problems with various parts of the body. There can also be issues with extremely small suspects or those who are obese, as these impairments along with countless others may cause clues to be scored inaccurately.
One of the most important criteria of the walk and turn test is the surface. If the officer does not conduct the test on a flat, level, dry, non-slip surface, the score and ultimate determination of the test are reduced to worthlessness.
The test should be conducted in an area where the suspect is able to concentrate and is not distracted by heavy traffic, close vehicles, excessive honking, or sirens. The officer is also supposed to be motionless during the test, and if they choose to walk around the suspect or interfere in any way then the test may be invalidated.
Problems With Clothing or Shoes
Sometimes clothing can prevent an issue to proper completion. High heels over 2” should be removed, and any restrictive or excessively baggy clothing may cause a failure as well.
Facing Charges Stemming From a Walk And Turn Test?
If you or someone you know was given a field sobriety test and subsequently faced DUI charges, it is imperative that you get in contact with an experienced, local law firm that can help keep your rights preserved. Reach out today to discuss the details of your case in a confidential environment, and build an attorney-client relationship that advocates for you.