Being stopped by the police when driving is something all of us want to avoid. Police have the authority to pull over drivers for many different reasons, such as speeding, failing to stop at a stop sign, making an illegal turn, crossing the center line, not using a turn signal, and driving erratically. Drivers can even be stopped randomly at checkpoints to deter drunk driving.
When a police officer stops a driver, one of the first things he is assessing is whether that driver exhibits any signs of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is true regardless of the reason for the stop. It is just part of the normal routine of traffic stops. Obviously, the officer will be on higher alert if the stop is made because of erratic driving.
Police officers must be cautious in these situations because they only have the right to detain drivers for an amount of time necessary to resolve the reason for the stop, such as issuing a speeding ticket. To do any more than that, officers must have reasonable cause for their actions. Unreasonable detention is considered a violation of one's constitutional right to be free from false imprisonment.
When is a Field Sobriety Test Conducted?
When a police officer suspects that a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the officer may have the driver submit to field sobriety tests. The driver is not required to take these tests. The test results are part of the basis for the officer's determination of whether there is reasonable cause to arrest the driver for driving under the Influence (DUI).
When a field sobriety test is conducted, the police officer will instruct the driver to perform a series of agility tests that an impaired person would not be able to complete appropriately. The tests include the following:
* Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus;
* Walk and Turn; and
* One-Leg Stand.
The Horizontal Gaze test involves the officer having the driver follow the motion of the tip of a pen or finger and looking for the involuntary jerking of the eyes as they gaze toward the side. If the subject's eyes jerk at certain points when following the stimulus, the officer may infer alcohol or drug impairment. This test is considered to be the most reliable of the three field sobriety tests in assessing impairment.
The Walk and Turn demonstrates whether the driver can maintain their balance by walking heel to toe in a line, turning in a prescribed manner, and walking back to the starting point. The officer looks for several indicators of failure, including using arms to maintain balance, stopping to regain balance, and stepping off the line. Failing to follow the instructions, such as the number of steps to take, is also considered by the officer in the assessment.
The One-Leg Stand is similar to the Walk and Turn in that it tests the balance of the subject. The officer will be looking for whether the driver is unable to stand on one leg for the required amount of time, whether he or she sways, hops, or uses his or her arms to maintain balance.
After the Test
A police officer administering a field sobriety test has the responsibility of interpreting the driver's performance and then deciding whether there is probable cause to arrest the driver for DUI. In so doing, the officer must take into account factors other than alcohol or drug impairment that could cause the driver to perform the tests poorly.
For example, other medical conditions may cause a person to fail any or all three of the tests. Vision, weight, spinal, orthopedic, muscular, and nerve impairments are common examples of medical issues that can interfere with properly completing a field sobriety test. Weather and other distractions may also affect the driver's ability to complete the tests. The police officer must properly assess the entirety of the circumstances when deciding whether to make a DUI arrest.
If the officer concludes that the driver has failed any of the tests due to alcohol or drug impairment, the officer will make an arrest for DUI. The test results may also be considered with other information such as the odor of alcohol, or items found in the driver's possession. However, the presence of odor or other physical evidence is not necessary for the driver to be arrested.
Field sobriety tests are not foolproof evidence of driving under the influence. They are tools used by the police to evaluate a potential offender before deciding to deprive that person of their right to be free of unlawful detainment. There is a lot of room for error, especially when there is no other evidence to indicate guilt.
Hiring the right attorney may help you avoid a conviction for driving under the influence. At the Law Offices of Virginia L. Landry, our Orange County defense attorneys have experience helping people charged with DUI, and they will work to help you stay in the driver's seat. For more information about DUI proceedings, visit
. To set up a free initial consultation with one of our attorneys, call 866.902.6880 today.