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Standard Field Sobriety Tests in Ohio

Field sobriety tests are subjective tests that are designed to test judge your coordination and reflexes. By doing so, an officer can infer whether or not you’re driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The most commonly used field sobriety tests are the walk and turn (walk a few steps one way then turn and walk a few steps the other way), the one leg stand (stand on one leg and balance for thirty seconds) and the horizontal gaze nystagmus (tracking objects with your gaze). These three tests are the only ones that have been scientifically studied by the federal government and been shown to demonstrate any sort of reliability for indicating when a driver is over the legal BAC limit. The first two tests are “divided attention” tests. It is difficult for intoxicate people to be able to listen to and focus on instructions while performing physical movements and maintaining balance. The officer will be looking for signs of impairment such as swaying while balancing, using your arms to balance, hopping to maintain balance and putting your foot down. If you fail two or more of the field sobriety tests, the officer will likely arrest you and ask for a chemical BAC test. You have the right to refuse the field sobriety tests and if you are driving under the influence, it might be in your best interest to do so. If you suspect you will fail the tests it behooves you not to take them. The results of these tests can be used as evidence against you if you are arrested for drunk driving. In fact, most police cars now record traffic stops so should your case go to court, you might even have videotape evidence used against you.

An up-to-date lawyer is one who is NHTSA certified. An NHTSA certified lawyer is best suited to help you challenge field sobriety tests since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the organization that actually developed the procedure for administering field sobriety tests. The field sobriety tests can be challenged in numerous ways. You could challenge the accuracy of the test in general and the subjective nature of the evaluation of the test results. Only the three above mentioned field sobriety tests (walk and turn test, one leg stand, and horizontal gaze nystagmus) have been found to have any reliability for indicating a driver is over the legal BAC limit. If the officer tests you with any other test, you could argue that that is was the wrong test to apply since it has been found by the NHTSA to be unreliable. The NHSTA tests found that the horizontal gaze nystagmus test when performed correctly is 77% reliable and that the walk and turn test if administered correctly on a level, dry surface is 68% reliable. The one leg stand if administered correctly on a level, dry surface is 65% reliable. Collectively, if the officer administers correctly all three tests to a driver, the results that someone is under or over the legal BAC limit is 83% reliable. With these numbers in mind, if the officer only performed one test you could argue that without doing all three the results are not reliable enough to show impairment. You could contest the reliability of the officer who administered the test or the accuracy of the administration of the tests. The NHTSA states that if these tests are administered incorrectly (or not according to the NHTSA manual) then they have ZERO predicted reliability. Your lawyer, when cross-examining the police officer who administered your tests, could drill him on the NHTSA manual and if it found that he did not know the proper procedure for administering your field sobriety test then the court could end up throwing out the test results altogether. You could argue that the police officer did not have probable cause to pull your car over or to request that you comply with the field sobriety tests.

Most courts are more than willing to agree with the driver on the unreliability of the field sobriety tests. Even under optimal conditions, between 25% and 30% of sober people can fail these tests and in most traffic stops conditions are less than optimal. If it is raining or snowing when you are stopped or if you are asked to perform the test on any kind of incline, both these variables will negatively affect your performance on the test and hence lower the reliability of the results. If the area is not well-lit where the law enforcement officer has asked you to perform these field sobriety tests, this is against the NHTSA approved procedure for administering the exam. If the officer does not follow any part of the procedure, it dramatically alters the validity of the test. The Supreme Court of Ohio recently invalidated the prosecutor’s evidence of the field sobriety tests when it was discovered that the law enforcement officer did not follow NHTSA procedure in administering the tests. The court found that strict compliance with NHTSA training is a factor in determining admissibility of the evaluation of these exercises as evidence against a driver.


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