Field sobriety tests in DUI cases

Field sobriety testing is one of the primary tools that law enforcement uses to make a DUI arrest decision. The results are also some of the most compelling evidence presented at trial. But there are still a lot of interesting areas to explore that can demonstrate why an officer’s interpretation of the field sobriety tests may not be reliable.

Understanding field sobriety tests in Georgia

A police officer might use a number of field sobriety tests to gauge your level of impairment, from reciting the alphabet backward to touching the tip of your nose with your eyes closed. But there are two big things you should know: 1. You don’t have to take them. These tests are completely voluntary, and you can’t be punished for declining to complete them. 2. There are only 3 standardized field sobriety tests that are included in the national protocol for DUI detection (and reciting your ABCs backward isn’t one of them). Also referred to as the standardized “battery” of testing, these three tests make up the most commonly relied upon tests in DUI investigations.

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The HGN examination requires the officer to stand quite close to the driver, move a stimulus (often a pen light) in front of the driver’s face and closely observe the presence or absence of involuntary jerking of the eye. Under normal circumstances, the driver’s eyes should move smoothly back and forth across the field of vision. But when nystagmus is present, the officer should clearly see jerking of the eyeballs, similar to what happens when you roll a marble across sand paper. Alcohol consumption can cause this involuntary jerking of the eyes. The driver will not be able to tell if nystagmus was present or not, and as a result, most drivers assume that they have “passed” the HGN test. It is important to keep in mind that alcohol is really only one of many things that can trigger this involuntary jerking of the eyes. As a result, an officer will not rely on HGN alone when making an arrest decision.

WAT, is in part a balance test, with an additional component that evaluates mental impairment. The officer asks the driver to stand in a heel-to-toe position while he or she goes through a layered set of instructions regarding how the test should be completed. This is called the “instructional phase.” Most drivers don’t realize it, but the officer is scoring the driver on his performance during the instructions, too. For instance, if the driver steps out of the heel-to-toe position, that is scored against the driver. Similarly, if the driver starts during the instructional phase, that too will count against the driver. The WAT has a total of 8 possible ways the driver can make a mistake, resulting in the officer observing a “clue.” The other clues he is looking for include whether the driver raises his arms, stops while walking, does not touch heel-to-toe on every step, steps offline, takes an improper number of steps, or turns improperly. If the officer observes 2 of the 8 clues, then this will support his decision to arrest the driver.

The OLS test is very similar to the WAT, but is a bit less complicated. The officer is only looking for 4 possible clues, and like the WAT, if the officer observes 2 of those 4, he will likely arrest the driver for DUI. The officer asks the driver to stand on one leg, foot raised 6 inches from the ground, and count by 1000’s until the officer ends the test. The officer is closely watching to see if the driver puts his foot down, raises his arms, sways or hops and records any clues he observes.

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Attorney Erin H. Gerstenzang

Criminal defense for DUI cases in Georgia

It is important to fully understand the value of these tests when evaluating the strengths or weaknesses of any DUI case. Most DUI practitioners will tell you that officers rarely administer these tests perfectly, and there are nuances of the processes can leave room to challenge the weight of the test results. That being said, it is nearly impossible to fairly evaluate whether the prosecution has a strong DUI case without knowing how the field sobriety tests were conducted.

An experienced attorney can evaluate how the tests were given, and provide a defense challenging their reliability. If you were asked to perform field sobriety tests and charged with a DUI, call Attorney Erin Gerstenzang to discuss your case.


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