Most everyone appreciates the true gravity of being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. The consequences of a conviction for offenses of this nature can be lasting as well as profound. Terms of imprisonment, oppressive financial sanctions, probationary supervision, job loss and other effects can be truly crippling and often prevent the resumption of a normal life for years after the fact. For all of these reasons, it is important for all drivers to understand the function of DUI roadside testing as it relates to law enforcement efforts to stop drinking and driving, and how their response to such measures can impact the defense strategies they may be able to employ.
Key Facts About Field Sobriety Tests
Roadside sobriety testing is performed primarily as a means to facilitate enforcement of DUI laws in Georgia, and it is typically done prior to any sort of breath or blood testing. Once a driver is suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol and stopped by an officer, three different tests are typically administered. The purpose of these exercises is to give law enforcement the opportunity to assess the driver's attentiveness, balance, physical coordination and other traits indicative of his or her current level of impairment. In essence, these tests can provide the probable cause necessary for a DUI arrest to be made.
Standardized Testing Methods
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has put its weight behind a group of three individual elements which collectively comprise the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST). Law enforcement officials in Georgia utilize the SFST, routinely requesting drivers to perform the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, the one-leg stand (OLS) and the walk-and-turn (WAT). Proponents of the tests assert that the combined insights provided by these tests can detect impairment in 91 percent of cases. Drivers who perform poorly on these elements are typically asked to submit to a breathalyzer test incident to arrest.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test
The name of this testing element refers to an involuntary jerking of the human eye that is known to occur when the eye attempts to glance sideward. Alcohol impairment exacerbates this effect, making this assessment useful during stops for suspected DUI. Impairment will likely be inferred by law enforcement if the motorist cannot smoothly follow a moving object, exhibits a noticeable jerking motion when the eye is looking sideways and/or is within 45 degrees of center.
One-Leg Stand Test
This element of the testing protocol requires a motorist to stand with a single foot raised roughly six inches above the ground, holding the position for a count of 30. Impairment may be detected if the suspect begins to sway, requires arm involvement to stay balanced, begins to hop or drops the foot to the ground.
Walk and Turn Test
This portion of the test explores a motorist's ability to follow instructions. A suspect will be asked to take a series of nine steps in a heel-to-toe manner, along a defined straight line. Then, they must turn on a single foot and head back in the opposite direction.
Alternative Roadside Testing Methods
In addition to the standardized series of roadside testing, law officers in Georgia may also ask individuals suspected of DUI to perform one or more non-standard roadside sobriety tests. These could include:
- recitation of the alphabet
- standing with feet closed together while tipping the head skyward
- counting the number of officer's raised fingers
- closing the eyes and attempting to touch a finger to the nose
- counting in a backward fashion
Factors Impacting Performance on Field Sobriety Tests
Despite the fact that many law enforcement officers put great stock in these tests' ability to accurately identify impairment, the truth of the matter is that they are incredibly subjective and can be failed for a number of reasons by individuals who are not in fact impaired. Those suffering from balance problems, medical conditions, generalized anxiety, vision difficulties and other afflictions may perform poorly on such exercises, even when completely sober. Inclement weather, rugged terrain, and other variables can also call into question the validity of roadside testing results.
Refusing DUI Roadside Testing
A traffic stop of any sort, particularly one likely linked to suspicion of DUI, is something that can strike fear in the heart of any driver. Nerves and jitters may take control, causing motorists to forget that they are well within their rights to refuse field sobriety testing such as that described above. Roadside tests of this nature are different than scientific testing used to concretely measure blood alcohol content. It is not illegal to decline the former, but refusing the latter following an arrest can lead to a driver's license suspension lasting one year. It is important for drivers in Georgia to keep in mind that the non-scientific nature of field sobriety tests may ultimately provide the level of suspicion necessary for an arrest to be made and a blood or urine test conducted, but will not be enough, standing alone, to obtain a conviction.
Defense Strategies Addressing Field Sobriety Assessments
Because field sobriety tests are often used as a means to find probable cause for a DUI arrest, it is important for those facing charges to know that avenues of attack on this type of evidence do exist. Many police offer vehicles are now equipped with video capability which can bolster a defendant's case, particularly when they performed well on field sobriety tests, but were arrested anyway. Improper or erroneous administration of these types of protocols can cause serious doubt on the legitimacy of any subsequent arrest.
Vigorous Legal Advocacy in Georgia
There can be no doubt about the seriousness with which the state of Georgia takes driving under the influence of alcohol and the potentially devastating results of conviction. At Morris Law, P.C., we are dedicated to providing clients with the aggressive legal representation they deserve. We strive to achieve reduction or dismissal of pending charges, or at the very least, substantial mitigation of the penalties ultimately imposed. To discuss the specifics of your DUI arrest and to learn how we can help, contact us at (706) 250-1316.