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Standard Field Sobriety Test in Alabama

In Alabama, the police are permitted to stop a vehicle if they observe a suspect driving drunk or if a driver is not following the rules of the road.  If the police smell alcohol or have other reason to believe you have been driving under the influence, they can ask you to take a field sobriety test to judge your ability to perform somewhat simple motor skills such as touching a finger to nose to determine a level of sobriety.

The most reliable field sobriety test used is the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. With this test, you are instructed to follow the officer’s pen or penlight but without moving your head. The officer will move the pen or penlight back and forth horizontally. Most people think they can do this just fine, but there are involuntary eye tremors that the officer looks for. This generally indicates intoxication. The problems with this test, however, are certain prescription drugs, flashing lights and traffic passing by can also make your eyes tremor more profoundly than normal even though you are not intoxicated. Also, the officer has complete discretion to determine whether you are intoxicated, and the recording video camera is not zoomed in on your face to confirm any eye tremors.

Another option would be for the officer to instruct you to walk a certain number of paces from heel to toe and in a straight line. Then you will turn and do the same thing in the opposite direction. The officer will also instruct you to keep your arms down and to your sides and to count your paces. This test, although acceptable for the officer to use, is not the more accurate test for determining if someone is intoxicated or not. It is possible for someone who is legally intoxicated to pass this test.

Another less-common test is where the officer will instruct you to stand on one leg while raising your other leg while extended straight in front of you and six inches off the ground. Then the officer will instruct you to hold your leg up while counting to a specified number out loud. Although this test is approved to be used, it rarely is because the tasks under this test could be difficult for someone not under the influence.

Alabama law does not require submitting to a field sobriety test, so the driver can deny an officer’s request when prompted to take such a test.  However, such refusal will result in the officer asking the driver to take a chemical test of some kind (a breathalyzer, for example).  This request is not optional, and failure to comply can result in suspension of license for a minimum of one year.

Field sobriety tests in Alabama are not protected by the constitutional self-incrimination privilege.  This means that comments made by the driver during the field sobriety test can be used against the driver in a proceeding.  In other words, there is no bar to the driver incriminating himself in this way.  It is also important to remember that in Alabama, the use of lawfully taken prescription drugs is no defense to a charge of driving under the influence, so one must be careful of the side effects of any medication they are currently taking.

Field Sobriety tests can be challenged, since they do not involve a precise reading of the driver’s level of intoxication; rather they merely test the driver’s balance or mental cognition.  As a result, these tests are sometimes challenged as failing to accurately portray the driver’s true impairment or BAC.


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