Thomas Soldan On Standardized Field Sobriety Tests
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Virginia DUI lawyer Thomas Soldan.
What Are Standardized Field Sobriety Tests in Virginia?
Thomas Soldan: When people talk about field sobriety testing, they often use the acronyms SFST for Standardized Field Sobriety Test, as opposed to FSTs for field sobriety tests. The “standardized” part has a very specific meaning. In the context of field sobriety tests, “standardized” means that the officer, state trooper, or local town sheriff has been trained utilizing a certain standard set of criteria. The standard set of criteria in the Commonwealth of Virginia is typically the standards that are developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. Other standardized tests may be standard protocol that’s established by a local criminal justice academy, but typically when people say “standardized,” they’re referring to the NHTSA standards. “Standardized” also refers to the fact that the tests are supposed to be administrated in the same way to every person who is stopped on suspicion of committing a DUI offense in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The standardized tests are specific in that they are looking for certain things at certain times with certain specific instructions. The basic standardized tests are the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test, the Walk-and-Turn (WAT) test, and the One-Leg Stand (OLS) test.
What Is The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test?
Thomas Soldan: HGN stands for Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus. That’s a test in which the officer is trying to detect involuntary eye jerking at the standard deviation of your eyesight. It’s fairly technical and a lot of practitioners in DUI defense law will tell you that an optometrist or ophthalmologist is more appropriate to administer and read this test than an officer, judge, or attorney. During the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, they are looking for involuntary jerking of the eye under the theory that that involuntary jerking will be more pronounced when a driver has consumed alcohol than when they have not.
What Is The Walk-and-Turn (WAT) Test?
Thomas Soldan: The Walk-and-Turn test is commonly referred to as “walk the line.” This is what many people think of when they think about DUI field sobriety tests. Like the HGN test, and all field sobriety tests in Virginia, these tests are completely voluntary. You’re not compelled to do them. If you don’t feel comfortable doing the test, it is your right to refuse to do the test. You cannot be forced or compelled to perform field sobriety tests in Virginia. If you choose to perform the Walk-and-Turn test, they will be looking for several different things. The officer will put you in the starting position, which feels unnatural and counter-intuitive even in a controlled environment. The law enforcement officer will give you a series of instructions and then they’re going to have you walk in a heel-to-toe fashion in a straight line at a certain pace while counting aloud. It’s a very unusual way to walk. No one walking down the street walks heel-to-toe in a straight line. But in this test, it’s something that’s asked for by an officer in order to try to establish that the person cannot differentiate between trying to keep their balance and trying to follow the instructions. This is one of a series of tests known as a “split attention test.”
What Is The One-Leg Stand (OLS) Test?
Thomas Soldan: The other standardized test that has a standard set of instructions according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the One-Leg Stand test. The One-Leg Stand test is another split attention test. A person is asked to raise one foot six inches off the ground, point their toe, and count aloud while looking at their toe. There may be other specific instructions such as keeping their hands at their sides. This is an important test because the officer will typically ask the person to count to a very high number. It’s somewhat unusual for someone to be able to perform this test perfectly in any situation, so I look to see to what degree the person was able to comply. I want to know if there are indications of impairment, what they were, and whether they are consistent. A person might have touched their toe every five seconds or they might have been swaying for balance. Weather conditions such as rain, cold temperatures, wind, and having a level surface can play a big part in the One-Leg Stand test because even under optimal conditions, it’s difficult. Under varied conditions or treacherous conditions, it’s close to impossible.