Maryland Field Sobriety Tests

Field sobriety tests are conducted when a police officer suspects a driver of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has created three standardized tests that a police officer may administer.  There are other non-standard tests as well, but these three are the most common tests an officer is likely to use during a DUI investigation at the scene.

Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs)

  • One Leg Stand – This test is more complicated than it sounds.  In addition to testing a driver’s physical ability it can also be used to test if the driver can do multiple things at once. The officer will choose a safe, dry, level area to conduct the test.   If the area is not safe or the driver is elderly or overweight, this test should not be given.  The officer will explain the test and may even demonstrate the test.  The driver must lift one foot off the ground about six inches while keeping his or her arms at their side.  Then the driver must count to 30 out loud before putting his or her foot back down.  The police officer will be watching for three specific things:   Do they need to use their arms to maintain balance?  Do they need to put their foot back down?  Is there excessive swaying? Failure in two of these three things is considered a failed test.  Of course an officer can technically make an arrest based on this test alone.
  • Walk and Turn – This is also a divided attention test.  The driver must take nine heel-to-toe steps, pivot, and then walk back.  While walking, the driver will be asked to count the steps out loud.  An officer will look for an incorrect amount of steps, any balance issues with walking and turning, the extent to which your arms are being used for balance and if all the steps are said out loud correctly.  If a couple of these criteria are missed, it will be considered a failed test.  This is another subjective test based on the observations by a police officer.  If they believe you are intoxicated before you take the test, it may be difficult to fulfill their expectations for a successful test.
  • Horizontal Gaze or Nystagmus Test – The driver will be asked to look at an object such as a pen, and then follow the object as it’s moved back and forth.  The officer will be following the driver’s eye looking for how smooth the eye movement is.  If the eye jerks, this is called Nystagmus.  This is cause enough for an officer to make an arrest.  These tests can be inaccurate.  It takes a well-trained ophthalmologist to truly spot nystagmus.  Also, eye movement can be caused by a number of things other than alcohol like multiple sclerosis, brain tumors and sedatives.

Police use field sobriety tests to help build a case against a driver and to quickly assess his or her level of intoxication. However, some DUI attorneys and advocates are getting attention from scientific and government groups about how well, or how poorly, field sobriety tests provide evidence of impairment.

The Problem with Field Sobriety Tests

One problem with a field sobriety test is that each individual has his or her own level of ability, both sober and intoxicated. Some of the field sobriety tests that police use are innately more challenging for some drivers than others. Ultimately, scientists have been able to show that field sobriety tests may not be entirely reliable as a means of assessing alcohol intake. That’s why police often use them in conjunction with a breath or blood alcohol test. It’s also why law enforcement officers have to be careful in basing drunk driving enforcement on these simplistic tests and outcomes.

Some legal resources show that studies by groups associated with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found field sobriety tests on their own to be insufficient diagnostic tools for establishing a DUI, to the extent that some courts may find them inadmissible if not joined by other evidence. In the legal community, professional DUI defense lawyers are talking about their options for questioning the validity of any field sobriety test as it relates to an individual case. In general, many experts feel the trend will be toward more reliance on actual breath testing and more relevant field sobriety testing.

What to do if you’ve Been Arrested for DUI in Maryland

If you have been charged with a DUI in Maryland it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced Maryland DUI defense lawyer to discuss your arrest.  Attorney Andrew Alpert and the DUI defense team at Alpert Schreyer, LLC can help.  Mr. Alpert is a former prosecutor who has received advanced training in Maryland DUI defense law.  He is certified to own and operate breath testing instruments, is a certified breath alcohol technician and is one of only a few attorneys in the state of Maryland who is a NHTSA certified field sobriety test instructor.  The Alpert Schreyer team can review your case and determine if any errors were made during field sobriety testing procedures.  If so, it may be possible to have that evidence deemed inadmissible in Court.   For more information on how Alpert Schreyer, LLC can help you fight your Maryland DUI charges, contact us today at (301) 262-7005 or (866) 444-6363 for a free case evaluation.