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First Contact with Police
Field Sobriety Exercises
After Arrest
Breath Test

Field Sobriety Exercises: What are they? What are the police looking for?

The stated purpose of field sobriety exercises is to determine if a person's "normal faculties are impaired." "Normal faculties" generally refers to walking, talking, judging distances, etc.—the normal faculties that one would use while going about normal day-to-day functions.

The field sobriety tests are supposedly designed to test these faculties. In reality, however, officers are trained to look for any slight deviation from the officer's instructions—such as taking one too many steps, or turning the wrong way—and consider the deviation to be an indication of intoxication. The officer will then, upon arrest, notate the various deviations from the officer's instructions and this will later be used against the person in court to attempt to prove that the person was driving under the influence.

Officers are looking for more than just straight walking

The field sobriety exercises are considered to be "divided attention tests." They are essentially "psycho-physical tests"—not only do they gauge physical performance (for instance, walking a straight line), but also gauge the psychological performance (for instance, remembering the instructions given). For example, if an officer tells a person to walk in a straight line with hands at their side and then turn to the right, the officer will not only observe the person's performance walking in a straight line with hands at the side, but will also observe whether the person took the appropriate number of steps and, in fact, turned the right way.

Of course, if you do well, it will likely NOT be noted

The vast majority of the time officers will not notate the various ways in which the person passed, or did well, on the sobriety exercises. This is the unfortunate reality of DUI investigation, and has led some criminal defense/DUI attorneys to conclude that it is sometimes beneficial for people to refuse entirely to perform the field sobriety exercises—thus limiting the possible incriminating evidence.

What are the field sobriety exercises and how are they performed?

Nystagmus: are the eyes jerking?

There are multiple standardized exercises that cops may ask you to perform. The first is the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN). This test involves the observation of the jerking of the eyes. An officer will ask you to follow the tip of a pen or a light with your eyes without moving your head. What the officer is looking for is an involuntary jerking or bouncing of the eyes. The action looks very much like wipers going across a dry windshield.

Nystagmus allegedly occurs because the alcohol or drug affects the ability of the eye to track properly. This test is scientific and most officers cannot testify as to the results because they must be specially qualified to do so. The validity of HGN as related to alcohol consumption is very questionable, so oftentimes this evidence will not be allowed in court. Also, there are many reasons, besides the consumption of alcohol, why nystagmus may be present.

The walk and turn

The next test most commonly administered is the "walk and turn." The officer will ask you to put one foot in front of the other, take nine steps, heal to toe, in a straight line, turn and take nine steps back.

There are a few tricks that cops like to use when performing this test: First, the officer will likely ask you to stand (and remain) in the "starting position" (one foot in front of the other) while he or she gives the rest of the instructions. This is confusing and most people will not remain in the start position for very long because it is awkward. If the person does not remain in the "start position," then the officer will likely notate this as an indicator of intoxication. Another common trick is for an officer to ask the person to take nine steps, but when demonstrating the walk and turn exercise, the officer will only take three steps himself.

While a person is performing the walk and turn test, officers will be watching for swaying while standing and while walking. The officer will note if you do not walk heal to toe (actually touching heel to toe), if you turn improperly, or if you take the wrong number of steps. Remember, this is a divided attention test—it is to gauge if one can remember instructions, the mental part, and also if one can actually do the exercise, the physical part.

The one leg stand

Another common test is the one leg stand. This involves standing on one foot, with the other foot raised approximately six inches above the ground. While doing this, the person is instructed to look down at his or her raised foot and count (usually out loud), to 30 seconds. The officer will look for swaying and balance, and whether you can hold up your foot for the 30 seconds. He or she will also note if you are able to count to 30 properly and clearly without mumbling (or accurately approximate the time if not counting out loud).

Other less common tests

While the previous three tests are the most common, there are other tests that may be requested because of leg or back issues, available space, or because the cop wants more evidence of impairment.

A common one is the alphabet test where a cop will likely ask you to close your eyes, lean your head back, and speak (not sing) the alphabet. A similar test involves closing your eyes, leaning your head back, and guessing the passing of 30 seconds time in your head. The officer will gauge this approximation against his wrist watch to determine how accurate you were. One test that is often talked about, but is not requested that often is the finger to nose where you close your eyes, lean your head back, and touch the tip of your nose with the tip of your finger. The officer will sometimes "trick" you by, for instance, asking you to touch your nose with your right hand twice in a row.

Is there probable cause to make a DUI arrest?

After field sobriety exercises have been performed, an officer will determine if there is probable cause to arrest for DUI. If the officer feels that there is, the person will likely be taken into custody for DUI. Even though you are arrested, the DUI investigation is not yet complete. After arrest, the person will still be observed, and any indication of impairment will be notated. Please click here to read about what happens after arrest.

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