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Challenging the Results of Field Sobriety Tests

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If you were asked to stand on one leg for thirty seconds, right now with no warning, could you do it? What about walking in a straight line, heel to toe, reversing direction and walking back on the exact same line, whether you could see the line or not? If either of these presented a significant challenge for you, federal authorities suggest that there is about an 80 percent chance that you might be intoxicated. Of course, this exercise is meant to be an exaggerated example, but the reality is that tests such as the ones mentioned are used by law enforcement every day as subjective evidence against drivers charged with DUI , knowing full well the tests are not always accurate.

Battery of Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration recognizes three roadside behavior assessments as “Standardized Field Sobriety Tests” or SFSTs. The tests include the two previously discussed and a third, the horizontal gaze nystagmus, in which the administering officer asks a driver to follow a small object, such as a pen, with his or her eyes, looking for involuntary jerking of the eyes (called nystagmus) and other indicators. Generally administered together, these tests are accepted around the country as admissible—although rebuttable—proof of a driver’s intoxication.

Concerns Regarding Accuracy

While such tests can provide assistance to a law enforcement officer in determining a driver’s level of intoxication, they are far from perfect. In fact, the NHTSA fully acknowledges in its own manuals that the most recent validation study was conducted more than 15 years ago, and even then, showed the tests to be about 91 percent accurate. The accuracy rate drops even lower for each test individually, with the walk-and-turn test showing to be the most unreliable , at only a 79 percent accuracy rate. If effect, this means that, despite their use in the courtroom, field sobriety tests are not irrefutable evidence against you, no matter what law enforcement officers try to convince you.

Mitigating Factors

There are a number of considerations that can greatly impact the results of field sobriety tests. Some of them relate to you, while others involving the administering officer. On your part, physical conditions, health concerns, and other factors may play a role in “poor performance” on SFSTs. For example, if you suffer from inner-ear problems or vertigo, the one-leg stand and the walk-and-turn tests are extremely unreliable indicators of being drunk. Likewise, nystagmus can be caused by far more than alcohol consumption or drug use.

Similarly, in order for the tests to even be considered by the court, they must be conducted in full compliance with standardized procedures. In fact, in 2000, an Ohio Supreme Court decision explicitly held that Standardized Field Sobriety Tests conducted outside of established NHTSA protocols “are inherently unreliable” and not admissible. In Illinois, appellate courts have agreed, requiring testimony—that can be refuted if necessary—that the tests were administered properly and in accordance with standards.

Legal Help for Your DUI Case

If you have been charged with DUI and you believe that SFSTs were inappropriately used against you, contact an experienced drunk driving defense lawyer in Joliet today. Our team of skilled legal professionals understands the law and is committed to ensuring your rights are fully protected. Call 815-740-4025 to schedule your free consultation at the Law Offices of Jack L. Zaremba, P.C..

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