What to Know about Field Sobriety Testing in New Jersey
October 11, 2021
One Saturday night, you accidentally swerve into the adjacent lane on the highway. Unfortunately, you did not see the police car trailing a car or two behind you until the lights flashing behind you. As you pull over, you feel your stomach sink. You have been stopped by the police before, but you are nervous, not knowing what to expect. Some of your friends have been drinking, and you had the least amount of alcohol of the group, so you become the designated driver. When the police appear at your window, they ask you for your license, registration, and insurance proof. Smelling alcohol in the car, they ask you if you had been drinking. Moments later, they ask you to step out of the car to take a field sobriety test.
At the time, you did not know that you could refuse to take a field sobriety test. You submit, and the officer asks you to perform three tests and instructs you what to do for each test. Feeling nauseous and nervous, you try your best to obey the officer’s commands and instructions for all three tests, known as standardized field sobriety tests, or SFST’s.
What Field Sobriety Tests Do
The three tests police officers ask all drivers they suspect of driving with drugs or alcohol in their system assess driver impairment. Driving takes attentive awareness and sharp reflexes to respond to road conditions that sometimes change with seconds to spare to react to swerving cars, inattentive drivers, speeding vehicles, and road conditions, such as rain, sleet, snow, potholes, and fallen items from cars or trees. As such, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved tests evaluate balance, coordination, and visual tracking ability.
The three tests are designed to detect whether drivers are legally drunk or driving under the influence of drugs, and are effective in finding drunk drivers in about 90% of those who take the tests if a qualified officer is trained to give them properly. Test results often end up as evidence for the prosecutor charging a driver with a DUI/DWI. Failing just one of the three tests is enough for an officer to conclude the driver is impaired and prompt them to seek confirmation with a breathalyzer.
Can You Refuse a Field Sobriety Test in NJ?
While a driver may refuse to take a field sobriety test, they cannot refuse to take a breathalyzer test without committing a serious traffic offense. Refusal to take a breathalyzer test could result in jail time, fines, license suspension, and/or as an ignition interlock device. Moreover, a prosecutor can still charge a driver with a DUI/DWI on the field sobriety tests and the officer’s testimony and reports.
3 Standard Tests for Field Sobriety Testing
The three standard tests an officer administers are horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), walk-and-turn, and one-leg stand.
The first tests eye movement. Intoxicated test takers may have trouble following a pen or flashlight as the officer slowly moves it left and right at the driver’s eye level but far enough into the driver’s peripheral vision to move the eyeballs. In attempting to follow the moving target, a drunk driver’s eyeballs may jerk erratically or will not be able to follow the pen or flashlight fluidly. Measuring both eyeballs’ movements, the officer tallies the number of deviations from normal. If there are four or more deviations, the conclusion is that driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is over the legal limit of .08%. Though the test is only about 77% accurate in detecting a BAC of .10% and higher, it is the most accurate of the three tests.
The walk-and-turn test requires the driver to walk a straight line heel-to-toe for nine steps in one direction and then turn on one foot to take the nine steps back again. The officer instructs the driver how to take the test and when to start. If the driver fails to follow directions, loses balance, stands unstably before the test even starts, stalls, or uses their arms to help them balance, they fail the test. Any two failures are enough to conclude the driver’s BAC is over the legal limit. The test is about 68% accurate.
The one-leg stand also tests balance when a driver must stand on one foot and count from 1,001 until the officer instructs the drive to stop. The test lasts for 30 seconds, in which the driver must not hop, put their foot down, sway, or use their arms to pass the test. Again, two failure indicates a 65% likelihood of an illegal BAC.
How can you fail a field sobriety test if you are sober?
For one, you can have a medical condition that affects your balance or your eye-tracking ability. Vertigo and inner ear infections, for example, may cause a sufferer to get dizzy and lose balance. And people with Parkinson’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and traumatic brain injury may have muscle tremors that make balancing difficult, if not impossible. Also, medications like cough medicine, cold medicines, prescription pain killers, anxiety medication, ADHD drugs, or Albuterol in inhalers can affect your ability to pass a field sobriety test. And poor vision and wearing contact lenses could cause a driver to fail the nystagmus test. Other sources of interference with a successful field sobriety test may be age, weight, injuries, and disabilities.
Additionally, even though an officer trained in giving field sobriety tests asks a driver if they know of any reason they cannot pass a field sobriety test, drivers who have never taken a field sobriety test or are frightened, or both, may not think about what might cause them to lose their balance or fail a nystagmus test.
Arrested for DWI after Failing a Field Sobriety Test in Burlington, NJ?
If you failed a field sobriety test and were arrested for a DUI, retain a talented DWI defense attorney at Proetta, Oliver & Fay, LLC., to challenge the results. Like a breathalyzer test, and perhaps more so, a field sobriety test is susceptible to challenge. Officers who do not properly administer the test may give unclear instructions, or make you take the test in unsuitable conditions, where it is windy, dark, or rocky ground. And since the results are based on subjective conclusions of an officer and heavily influenced by the circumstances at the time of the motor vehicle stop and the driver’s general profile, a skilled DUI lawyer on our team can comb over the SFST results to find mistakes and indeterminate judgments that may offer your best chance of getting the charges dismissed. We can also argue for any number of reasons why a driver’s physical condition, medication, or other state of being rendered them unable to follow directions.
Rely on an experienced DWI attorney at our law office in Burlington County to successfully discredit field sobriety test results to beat a DUI that you were charged with in Mount Olive, Evesham, Medford, Moorestown, or another town in South Jersey. Call (609) 850-8284 for a free consultation today.