Virginia Field Sobriety Tests
Field sobriety tests in Virginia are meant to help police officers identify drivers who are operating their vehicles while under the influence of alcohol and drugs in order for them to keep our roads, drivers, and pedestrians safe. If you are pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while impaired (DWI), the officer may ask you to perform the field sobriety tests. Unfortunately, because of the way police officers administer the tests and because of the inherent subjectivity of them, the tests many times do not serve the purpose for which they were intended. The tests were originally developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which provided guidelines for how the tests should be administered, thus standardizing them. Many local jurisdictions in Virginia administer their interpretation of the NHTSA standardized tests, though others simply administer tests as taught by the local criminal justice academies.
If you are stopped, given a field sobriety test, and subsequently charged with DUI, DWI, or driving under the influence of drugs (DUID), the charge may not hold up in court. If the field sobriety tests were not properly administered by the arresting police officer, a defense attorney may be able to challenge the results of the test and thus help you avoid a conviction. Criminal defense attorney Thomas Soldan has vast experience defending clients against drunk driving charges and is ready and willing to provide you with advice regarding your charges and the possible penalties you face.
Performing Standardized Field Sobriety Tests
There are three main types of field sobriety tests that are approved by the NHTSA. They are the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, the one-leg stand (OLS) test, and the walk-and-turn (WAT) test. The tests are designed to evaluate the driver’s balance, coordination, and ability to follow directions, among other things.
The horizontal gaze nystagmus test has to do with an involuntary jerking eye movement (nystagmus) that can be indicative of alcohol or drug impairment. During the test, the police officer will ask the suspect to follow a stimulus, such as a pen or a light, with their eyes while the officer moved the stimulus back and forth or up and down. The office will then observe whether both the eyes track the stimulus smoothly as well as whether each eye can do so individually. The officer must make a written record of his/her observations.
In the one-leg stand test, the driver must stand up straight with one foot lifted six inches off the ground, their arms at their sides, and their toe pointed. They are then asked to count to 30 while maintaining their balance. During this time, the officer observes the suspect for indicators of impairment, including swaying, lowering their foot before the 30 seconds are up, and hopping in an effort to maintain balance.
The walk-and-turn test involves taking nine steps heel-to-toe in a straight line. After taking the ninth step, the individual must turn as instructed and walk nine steps in the opposite direction in the same manner. During the WAT test, the officer is supposed to take note of many different indicators of impairment, including whether the person can maintain their balance while listening to the officer and whether they begin to walk before the officer instructs them to do so. Both the WAT and OLS tests are divided attention tests, meaning they require the test taker to focus on two separate things at the same time; their physical actions and the instructions of the officer.
Other Field Sobriety Tests
There are other sobriety tests that an officer may use to determine a driver’s level of impairment, but they are not standardized and are not used as commonly as the three NHTSA-approved tests.
Counting backwards is a test in which the individual stands with their arms at their sides and counts backwards as the officer requests. This could be, for example, from 46 to the number 29 or, more simply, from 10 down to one. The officer then observes up to four different areas of competence, including whether the person skips a number or cannot complete the test.
The alphabet test involves reciting the letters of the alphabet correctly and in order. The officer may pick a random letter for the person to start with, for example “n,” and have them finish the alphabet from that point.
During the finger-to-nose test, the suspect stands with their hands by their sides, feet together, eyes closed, and head facing forward while the officer gives commands. The officer will then ask the suspect to touch their nose with the index finger of each hand and observe whether or not the person is able to follow instructions correctly.
These alternative field sobriety tests are not endorsed by the NHTSA, and the results of these tests are not typically brought up as evidence against those accused of DUI in a court of law.
Problems with Field Sobriety Tests in Virginia
There is much room for error and inaccuracy in administering any of the field sobriety tests. For example, many of the observations the officer makes are subjective. In addition, failure to perform a test correctly may be caused by several other factors besides intoxication or impairment. For example, the person might not have heard the instructions correctly, they might have health issues that affect their balance, or the road conditions may not have been amenable to performing the test properly. Some of the tests are difficult to perform even for a non-intoxicated person, for example the one-leg stand test.
It is important to remember that field sobriety tests in Virginia are always voluntary, though a skilled law enforcement officer may ask you to perform them in a manner that would not make your ability to decline readily apparent. Despite the officer’s request, you always have the ability to decline field sobriety tests and under many circumstances, it is the right move to exercise that right.
If you were pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving and asked to perform field sobriety tests and you have questions about the test or the charges you might be facing, seasoned defense attorney Thomas Soldan can provide you with information and advice regarding drunk driving offenses and your options for defense. In fact, read what Thomas Soldan has to say about field sobriety tests here.