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Standard Field Sobriety Test in Montana

Much of the case law surrounding Montana law and its Field Sobriety Test indicates that the state’s officers follow the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Training Manual.  The NHTSA sets the standard for 3 specific tests:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

This test looks at the “jerking” of an individual’s eyes as he or she stare to the left and right. “Nystagmus” is an involuntary eye twitching which normally only occurs in sober individuals when staring in far peripheral directions.  In intoxicated individuals, however, the eye twitches and jerks occur under less extreme peripheral directions. As a way to test this, an officer may request the individual to stare at an object, which he then moves to the left and right. The officer looks at the eye movements of the individual to see if the individual’s eyes “jerk” more frequently.

Walk-and-Turn Test 

This test looks to determine how an individual handles dividing his or her attention to two different concentrations.  Sober individuals, in general, can follow simple directions and divide their attention in order to complete those tasks. Intoxicated individuals, on the other hand, have a harder time completing such divided tasks. The test consists of an officer requesting the individual to walk nine steps, heel to toe then turn on one step in the opposite direction. Intoxicated individuals will likely find this test difficult to complete.

One-Leg Stand

This test is also a test to determine an individual’s ability to divide their attention on two different concentrations, determining whether the individual is able to follow simple tasks while dividing his or her attention. In this test, the officer has the individual stand on one foot and count out loud until the officer requests that the individual place his or her foot down.  Again, intoxicated individuals will likely find this test difficult to complete.

A field sobriety test is considered a “search” and is admissible as a reasonable search under the Montana Constitution.  In order for a police officer to issue a field sobriety test, however, the law requires that the officer have a “particularized suspicion” that an offense has (or will) be committed. The purpose of the test is to observe how an individual reacts to the commands of the officer.

Admissibility and Challenge of Field Sobriety Test

The actions of an individual and an officer’s overall conclusions from a field sobriety test are admissible in court by means of the officer’s report. The state can submit that report as evidence during trial. However, the court has looked at the officer’s behavior when conducting the field sobriety tests, making sure that the officer followed the proper procedures. It is likely that if the court finds the officer had failed to correctly use the established procedures, the test will not be used against the individual during trial. Much of the court’s determination concerning admissibility comes from the circumstances surroundings the officer’s request of the test and the experience of the officer administering the test. An individual can file a motion requesting that the test be suppressed from evidence, effectively removing the evidence being used against the individual during trial. However, the court has discretion on whether to grant or deny such a motion.


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