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Do I Need To Submit to a Field Sobriety Test?

In the state of Washington, drivers are not legally required to submit to a field sobriety test. If an officer pulls you over on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he or she may ask you to perform a voluntary field sobriety test. However, these tests are highly subjective, and even if you have nothing to hide, any observations made by the officer could be used against you later on.

What is a Field Sobriety Test?

Field sobriety tests are one of the methods law enforcement officers use to determine whether or not to make an arrest for Driving Under the Influence (DUI). The tests were designed by an independent contractor hired by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) and were initially put to use in Florida, Colorado, and California. Although most people believe that the tests are designed to show impairment on behalf of the person being tested, in reality NHSTA was never able to design a test to establish roadside impairment. Instead, these tests are used to establish a probability for the investigating officer of whether you will be above the legal limit of alcohol (.08 in Washington).

The process of a field sobriety is very straightforward—upon any observation that a driver has had something to drink, usually the smell of alcohol coming from the vehicle, an officer will ask the driver to step out of the car and “if they are willing to take some voluntary field sobriety tests.” Unfortunately, when an officer asks someone to submit to a field sobriety test, the officer has likely already made up their mind to arrest the driver for intoxication.

The field sobriety tests are comprised of a series of 3 tests: The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test (HGN); the Walk & Turn Test; and the One Leg Stand Test. Each test is unique and each test has its own specific set of instructions that must be given exactly the same way to every individual tested. The first test, the HGN, is a test designed to allow an officer to observe your eyes as they follow a stimulus, such as a pen or finger, and to look for an “involuntary jerking of the eye” as it tracks the stimulus. The Walk & Turn test allows an officer to observe whether you can stand with your feet touching heel to toe while he/she provides instructions and then watch as you walk 9 steps up and back along an imaginary line. And the One Leg Stand test provides the officer the opportunity to watch as you stand on one leg, with one foot 6 inches off of the ground, and count out loud until told to stop. In each test the officer is looking for “clues” which help the officer form a belief you are going to be over the legal limit.

These tests seem like simple physical tasks, however, sometimes the officer’s directions can be phrased in a way that deviates from the standardized instructions, thus making the test invalid, or cause some confusion. This might cause you to follow directions incorrectly, which the officer can testify to in court if you are arrested. Outside factors can also affect the tests, such as the surface upon which they are performed, any physical injuries or difficulties (i.e arthritis, being overweight, age, etc.).

Protecting Your Rights

There are many ways in which a field sobriety test can go wrong. Even if you are not impaired, you might still misunderstand the officer’s instructions, or your nerves might get the best of your, thus resulting in a “clue” being observed by an officer. If you have an injury or are ill it could be especially difficult to perform the physical tasks required for a sobriety test. The most important thing to remember is that anything the officer observes in the field sobriety test could be used against you later on. If you are arrested, you will have a court date, where the arresting officer will be asked to give a statement about your arrest. In order to protect yourself, it is important that you avoid giving the officer more information to use against you.

What You Should Do

Refusing a field sobriety test is always the best way to protect yourself if you are pulled over or stopped and asked to perform these “voluntary” tests. In Washington State, it is not illegal to refuse a sobriety test because it is a voluntary process. You should understand that simply refusing the tests may not prevent the officer from arresting you, but it will mean that the officer has less information to make a decision to arrest you and less evidence to provide to the court and/or a jury.

If you are arrested you might be asked to take a blood or breath test at a police department or jail. It is also important to remember that if you are arrested you have a right to an attorney and you should always request to speak to one. After any contact with a law enforcement officer where you have been investigated for an alleged crime, it is important to remain calm and take the next important step to protect your future by calling an attorney. An experienced DUI attorney will be able to guide you through the process, gathering evidence to help build a case in your defense.

If you were arrested for and or cited for a DUI, make sure you take action immediately. Contact Guy Glenn Law Firm to discuss your case with our Pacific County criminal defense attorneys.