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Standard Field Sobriety Tests in New York

Every person operating a motor vehicle that is involved in an accident or that is operated in violation of any of the provisions of the Vehicle and Traffic Law must, at the request of a police officer, submit to a breath test to be administered by the police officer or any series of the other field sobriety tests. If the test indicates that such operator has consumed alcohol, the police officer may request such operator to submit to a chemical test. Alcohol screening tests are sufficiently reliable to indicate the presence of alcohol in a person’s breath for the purpose of establishing probable cause for an arrest but are not sufficiently reliable to determine the actual blood-alcohol concentration for purposes of a charge of driving while intoxicated. Thus, this initial screening breath test, used before the chemical test, is not admissible to prove intoxication but rather only to establish that probable cause existed to administer such chemical test. It should be distinguished from the chemical test referred to as a breathalyzer. The three most widely used field tests in New York State are as follows:

One-leg stand.

This requires the subject to stand on one leg for thirty seconds. The instructions state (without any evidence) that the full thirty seconds must be used, because mildly intoxicated people can often manage the stand for ten to twenty seconds. The one-leg stand is grounded in the common knowledge that excessive alcohol consumption can cause problems with coordination, balance, and mental agility, and its sole purpose is to reveal clues or symptoms of impairment; yet, it is also common knowledge that a variety of physical and environmental conditions, having nothing to do with intoxication, can also cause these symptoms and can be challenged upon those grounds.

Walk-and-turn.

The subject is required to balance heel-to-toe while listening to instructions, then take nine heel-to-toe steps along a line, turn in a specific and unfamiliar manner, and take nine steps back.

Horizontal gaze nystagmus.

There are many forms of nystagmus, which refers to jerking or wiggling of the eyeballs. Horizontal gaze nystagmus specifically concerns wiggling as the eyes deviate to the side while following a moving object. The jerking has a slow and a fast phase, with the fast phase being in the direction of the gaze (laterally). The eyes of fifty to sixty percent of all individuals will show horizontal gaze nystagmus if they move to the lateral extremes of from forty-five to sixty-five degrees, measured from the center of the nose.

However, after a person has consumed alcohol, the gaze nystagmus occurs at a much smaller angle, depending upon the blood alcohol concentration. Horizontal gaze nystagmus is examined by requesting that the subject follow an object, such as the officer’s finger or pencil that is moved. The admissibility standard as applied to administration and interpretation of the results of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test as an indicator of intoxication, has been generally accepted within the relevant scientific community as a reliable indicator of intoxication.

For all tests to be admissible, a proper foundation must be laid. The tests must be given in a reasonable time after an arrest. And consent must be obtained voluntarily, not through a false threat of license revocation.


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