Field Sobriety Tests And DWIs

Law enforcement officers throughout the state of New York frequently employ field sobriety tests in routine traffic stops. They may also administer field sobriety tests at the scene of an accident if they suspect that alcohol or other controlled substances may have been a factor in the incident. “Failing” a field sobriety test – that is, showing signs of impairment during the performance of the activities specified by the test – may lead to an arrest for driving while intoxicated (DWI). New York drivers may be able to refuse field sobriety tests in some circumstances, but they should be aware that such refusal may not prevent a DWI arrest. A refusal to submit to chemical testing at the precinct to measure blood alcohol levels can result in the immediate suspension of your New York driver’s license. If you have been arrested on suspicion of DWI after failing a field sobriety test or refusing to take one, you may wish to consult with an experienced New York drunk driving defense lawyer. Call 845-567-4820 to speak with a member of our experienced legal team at the Law Office of Benjamin Greenwald today. 

A drunk driving suspect submits to a horizontal gaze nystagmus field sobriety test during a traffic stop.

The Three Field Sobriety Tests 

There are three main standardized field sobriety tests (FSTs) that police officers may administer in most jurisdictions across the United States, including in New York. The tests are typically used in combination, both to compensate for the possible subjectivity of the administering officer and to provide a more comprehensive opportunity for evidence collection. 

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test 

The horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test assesses the involuntary jerking of the eye when it is moved from side to side. Nystagmus is a normal behavior of the eyeballs at edges of their range of motion, but especially pronounced nystagmus can be a symptom of alcohol intoxication, as high blood alcohol levels are typically associated with impaired motor control. Other factors that may lead to pronounced nystagmus include severe fatigue, certain medications, and some neurological conditions. 

Walk-and-Turn Test

A suspect performing a walk-and-turn test will be asked to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line while following complex instructions. The officer will observe the individual’s ability to maintain balance, follow directions, and take the correct number of steps, without faltering or deviating. As the name of the test suggests, once the suspect has walked the prescribed number of steps in one direction, they will typically be asked to turn – often on a tight radius – and walk back to where they began.

One-Leg Stand Test 

Difficult for many individuals even when sober, the one-leg stand test requires the suspect to stand on a single leg for a period of time specified by the officer administering the test. Generally the individual will be asked to count aloud while performing the balancing portion of the test. As with horizontal gaze nystagmus and the walk-and-turn test, during the one-leg stand test the administering officer will observe the suspect’s ability to maintain balance and keep a correct count. 

Field Sobriety Test Limitations and Accuracy 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides carefully developed, nationally standardized training to facilitate the instruction of law enforcement officers in how to conduct field sobriety tests and interpret their live results. When followed carefully, these protocols help to ensure that the tests are administered and interpreted in equivalent ways across a wide variety of settings and scenarios, essentially “standardizing” the way FSTs are conducted. 

Standardized Field Sobriety Tests Are Qualitative 

Unlike the chemical tests that measure alcohol levels in a driver’s blood, breath, or urine, however, field sobriety tests are qualitative, which generally means their results are open to some degree of interpretation. In addition to the fact that a number of factors can lead a sober individual to perform poorly on one or all of the FSTs, the training and experience of the administering officer can also make a difference in how the suspect’s performance on the test will be interpreted. Recognition of the risks involved in relying solely on qualitative measures such as FSTs means that law enforcement officials who administer a field sobriety test will typically seek a chemical test as follow-up if they believe that the suspect’s performance on any of the three standardized FSTs suggested impairment. 

New York State Field Sobriety Tests Are Voluntary

Section 1194 of the Consolidated Laws of New York specifies that any individual operating a motor vehicle within the state “shall be deemed to have given consent” to a chemical test of blood, breath, or urine – a doctrine applied in a number of states and known generally as “implied consent.” In New York, however, the law as written limits application of the implied consent doctrine to chemical tests – meaning that drivers in the state have the right to refuse to participate in a field sobriety test. An experienced New York DWI attorney may be able to explain your rights regarding field sobriety test refusals and what options you may have if you have failed a field sobriety test. 

What Strategies Can My Lawyer Employ To Challenge FST Results in Court? 

While every case is unique, there are a few legal strategies that DWI lawyers commonly use to challenge the results of field sobriety tests in court, depending on the circumstances involved. Individuals arrested for DWI in the state of New York have the right to represent themselves in court, but it can be a good idea to discuss some of the legal options for DWI defense with an experienced attorney. A traffic defense lawyer from the Law Office of Benjamin Greenwald may be able to review your case and offer perspective on how New York’s traffic laws apply to your unique circumstances. 

FSTs Are Unreliable 

An experienced New York DWI attorney may attempt to question the reliability of the field sobriety test. Common reasons for choosing this approach include doubts regarding the officer’s training or factors that may have had the potential to unduly influence their assessment of a suspect’s performance on one or more of the FSTs. 

Improper Setting 

The conditions prevailing at the scene of an accident are different from those that may be present at a routine traffic stop. Neither circumstance is likely to reflect normal driving conditions. In some cases, a drunk driving lawyer may consider it appropriate to raise doubts regarding whether the conditions under which the field sobriety test was administered, independent of the subject’s relative intoxication, may have influenced their performance on the FST. 

You Have a Physical Condition That Affects Your Ability To Complete the Tasks 

While not available in every situation, when a driver has a physical condition that impedes their ability to perform any of the measures commonly assessed in a field sobriety test – but does not result in driver impairment equivalent to illegally operating a motor vehicle under the influence of controlled substances as described by Section 1192 of the Consolidated Laws of New York – they may be able to argue that their poor performance on a field sobriety test was the result of their physical condition, rather than a symptom of intoxication.

The Police Made Mistakes in Administering the Tests 

Similar to a claim that the setting was improper, but related less to the prevailing conditions than to the actions of the administering officer, an argument that the law enforcement officer who performed the traffic stop or responded to the scene of the accident made mistakes in administering the FSTs will attempt to show that, although the suspect was not intoxicated, the administration of the test was mishandled. Often this “mishandling” is presented as the result of unnecessary confusion, arising from unclear or inconsistent instructions from the officer at the scene. 

Contact an Experienced New York DWI Attorney Today 

Field sobriety tests are voluntary in New York. If you have taken an FST and failed it, or if you have been arrested for DWI and failed a chemical test at the precinct, you may have a number of questions regarding your legal rights and options. Schedule a consultation with a New York attorney experienced in DWI cases to discuss your situation and evaluate all of your legal options for your case. Reach the experienced New York DWI attorneys at the Law Office of Benjamin Greenwald today by calling 845-567-4820.