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Standard Field Sobriety Tests in North Carolina

Field sobriety tests are tests, given by a law enforcement official before an arrest, that measure a person’s cognitive (psychological) and motor or physical functions to determine sobriety.  These tests are a tool for law enforcement officials to determine if a driver is impaired.  Like most jurisdictions, North Carolina allows a driver to refuse to take a field sobriety test and cannot be compelled to do so.  Individuals who wish to refuse to perform field sobriety tests should do so in a polite, yet firm, manner.  In North Carolina, roadside field sobriety tests can be used as evidence to convict an individual of a DUI charge.  In cases where the results of an implied consent BAC test are, for various reasons, not admissible as evidence against the defendant, the results of a BAC test are unreliable, or a driver has been charged with a DUI when they did not have a BAC at or above the legal limit, evidence obtained through a field sobriety test may be the prosecutor’s best evidence to obtain a conviction.

In North Carolina officers may ask the driver to perform a wide variety of roadside physical tests to determine a driver’s possible level of impairment.  The most common tests that driver will be asked to perform are the One-Leg-Stand Test (OLS), the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test (HGN), and the Walk and Turn Test (WAT).  These three tests have been deemed to be the most reliable of field sobriety tests and are considered “standardized” field sobriety tests, though they are often used in conjunction with “non-standardized” field sobriety tests.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has published the recommended procedure for administering standardized field sobriety tests as well as the indicators of impairment officers will look for during performance of the tests.  This information can be found at http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/alcohol/SFST/appendix_a.htm.

There are many possible reasons that a person may not be able to “adequately” perform field sobriety tests.  Drivers that are drowsy may find it difficult to balance and may appear to be intoxicated because of red and watery eyes or the color of their cheeks.  These same symptoms may also be present with the presence of a simple cold, sinus infection, or due to allergies.  Symptoms of drowsiness and sickness are often amplified at night.  If a driver has past or present physical impairments, he or she may have trouble performing field sobriety tests.  Usually the officer will ask the driver if he or she has any condition that may limit the ability to perform tests.  Drivers that decide to consent to physical tests should inform the officer of any condition that may lead to negative test results that may be used against them in court.

It is important to reiterate that in North Carolina drivers are allowed to refuse to submit to physical roadside field sobriety tests.  There are no penalties for refusing to submit to these tests and evidence of refusal to submit to physical tests cannot be used against a driver in court.  If a driver does submit to physical tests, his attorney may challenge the reliability of the tests by discussing the driver’s physical impairments at the time that could have led to negative results.  The attorney may also challenge the officers training and ability to correctly administer the tests as well as examine the officer on the process actually used.  Attacking the tests with regards to their ability to reliably indicate impairment can be a successful way to strengthen a client’s case and weaken the prosecutor’s evidence derived from the physical tests.


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