Field Sobriety Tests in California DUI

An officer on the street is always on the lookout for driving under the influence. The officer is typically looking for signs of intoxication from the driver. The first things that the officer looks for are how the suspect is driving- is the suspect swerving, does the vehicle have the headlights on, is the suspect driving the speed limit, and he will also look to see if the vehicle is staying within its lanes. Once the officer has pulled the vehicle, the officer will look for other signs of intoxication- does the suspect have bloodshot eyes, are the suspect’s eyes watery, does the suspect have slurred speech, is there a smell of alcohol coming from the suspect, and are there any alcohol containers in the vehicle. If the officer suspects that someone is driving under the influence, and he has established reasonable suspicion, the officer may order the suspect out of the vehicle to perform field sobriety tests. These tests are extremely subjective and are designed to be failed. It is important to note that the field sobriety tests are optional and nobody is required to submit to them. However, the officer will not tell you that the tests are optional.
If you do not refuse to take the field sobriety tests, three main tests make up the standardised field sobriety tests. Those three tests are:

  1. Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus
  2. Walk-and-Turn
  3. One-leg Stand

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus

HGN is an involuntary jerking of the eye which naturally occurs as the eyes move from side to side inside of the eye socket. This happens when the eyes rotate at high peripheral angles. When somebody has been drinking alcohol and is otherwise impaired, nystagmus is extraordinarily exaggerated and occurs at fewer angles than in somebody that is not intoxicated. Officers look to determine if a person can smoothly track a moving object with their eyes from side to side. A person impaired by alcohol will also not be able to seamlessly track a moving object with their eyes from side to side. More specifically, the officer will be looking for three things:

  • If the eyes cannot follow an object horizontally.
  • If the jerking is distinct when the eyes are at their maximum deviation.
  • If the jerking occurs within 45 degrees of the centre of the eye.

If the police officer notices 4 or more clues between both of the suspect’s eyes, it is likely that the suspect has a blood alcohol level of 0.10 or more. The test is designed to determine if a suspect has a blood alcohol content of 0.10 or greater approximately 77% of the time.

Walk and Turn Test

Officers may also make the suspect do the walk and turn test. This is where the officer makes the suspect walk several steps in a straight line heel to toe while counting. After the suspect has taken the number of steps requested, they must then turn on one foot and return to where the test started. The officer will also be looking for several things to indicate that the suspect is under the influence:

  • If the suspect can’t keep their balance when they listen to the instructions.
  • The suspect begins to perform the test before the officer finishes their instructions.
  • If the suspect stops while walking the line to regain their balance.
  • If the suspect does not touch heel-to-toe with every single step.
  • If the suspect has to use their arms for balance.
  • If the suspect loses their balance while turning.
  • If the suspect takes the incorrect number of steps or forgets what number to count up to.

Officers understand that 68% of suspects that exhibit 2 or more of the above indicators typically have a blood alcohol level of 0.10 or higher.

One Leg Stand

The last test that I will write about is the one leg stand. This is where the officer will tell the suspect to stand with one foot raised around 6 inches from the ground and to count until the officer says the suspect to put their foot down. The officer typically times this test and stops the test at 30 seconds. The officer is attempting to see how close to 30 seconds the suspect was able to count. There are also signs that the officer is looking for with the one leg stand:

  • If the suspect is swaying back and forth while balancing on one foot.
  • If the suspect is using their arms for balance.
  • If the suspect is forced to hop to maintain their balance.
  • If the suspect is putting their foot down during the test.

Officers understand that 65% of suspects who show 2 or more of the above symptoms have a blood alcohol content of 0.10 or more. The more indicators that the officers pick up, the more persuasive the officer’s testimony will be in court.

The embarrassment from the roadside field sobriety tests given to suspected drunk drivers quickly gives way to the terrible reality of handcuffs, and the fear of the consequences that could follow a California DUI conviction, like the possibility of being sent back to jail for even a minute, or losing your California driver’s license for months, or even years. The attorneys at Ginny Walia Law Offices understand how you feel. More importantly, we know how to cushion or avoid the harsh consequences of a DUI arrest.

If you have been arrested for California DUI / DWI, it is vital that you act quickly to protect your driver’s license. You have only 10 days from the date of arrest to request a DUI DMV Administrative Per Se (APS) hearing with the California DMV.