Challenging Field Sobriety Tests

When someone is suspected of driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey the arresting officer will put the driver through several tests to determine their level of intoxication and ability to drive lawfully. The initial tests an officer will ask a driver to perform during a standardized field sobriety test (SFST) include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk & turn and the one-legged stand. If the police officer feels that you are intoxicated after observing your field sobriety test, then they will place you under arrest and take you to the police station where they will ask you to submit to a breath test to determine your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). The results of your breathalyzer test will be used to not only justify an arrest, but to also show the court the amount of alcohol that was in your blood. A breath test result plays a pivotal role in New Jersey DWI sentencing and can determine the amount of time your license will be suspended, the amount of fines you will be subjected to pay and whether or not you receive jail time. If your BAC is at 0.08% or higher you will be charged with DWI in New Jersey.

What Are The Standardized Field Sobriety Tests In New Jersey?

drunk guy

If you have been arrested for a DWI recently, then you probably were given several tests by the arresting officer at the scene of your traffic stop. These tests are called standardized field sobriety tests and they are given to support the arresting officer's probable cause to detain you upon suspicion that you were driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

In order for an officer to arrest you, he or she will need something to support your detainment until an official breath test can be conducted. To do this, the officer will have you perform the field sobriety tests, then make a judgment as to whether or not you were driving under the influence. The standardized

field sobriety tests consist of a series of tests to determine a driver's physical and mental capabilities. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommended and approved the standardized field sobriety tests as a meaningful method for an officer to form an opinion of the level of impairment a driver suspected of DWI might be.

The following three field sobriety tests are approved for used in New Jersey and are considered by the NHTSA as standardized due to their strict procedural guidelines for administering them.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus

The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is considered to be the most accurate of the SFST according to the NHTSA. The officer administrating this test will have the accuse follow a stimulus, usually a pen or finger, with their eyes while having their head remain still. The officer will be looking to see if their is a lack of smooth motion of the eye from side to side, for nystagmus which is repetitive or uncontrolled eye movements, and to see if the eye starts to jerk before it has moved through a 45 degree angle.

Even though the NHTSA feels that the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test is one of the more reliable SFST, there are still ways to challenge the results. If the police officer administering the test did not follow proper procedures including moving the stimulus too quickly or too slowly, holding the stimulus too far from or too close to your eyes, not holding the stimulus for a minimum of 4 seconds or the looping of the stimulus (curving the stimulus upward or downward). Certain medical problems may also result in gaze nystagmus such as physiological disorders and issues with the brain or the middle ear. A brain hemorrhage, epilepsy, schizophrenia and vertigo are just a few medical conditions that could cause a false test result. Issues with the eyes themselves could pose a problem such as eyestrain, eye muscle fatigue and glaucoma. Any of these factors mentioned here can cause the test results to be deemed unreliable.

Walk And Turn

walking a straight line

The police officer will explain the directions of the Walk and Turn test and then demonstrate the motion of the test before asking the driver to repeat their actions. The officer instructs the diver to place one foot in front of the other in a straight line with the heel of one foot touching the toes of the other. The office will ask the driver to take nine heel-to-toe steps, turn around and take another nine heel-to-toe steps back to the starting point. The officer is observing the drivers ability to follow instructions, their balance, failure to touch toes, the inability to walk a straight line, the use of their arms for balance, improper turning, and the incorrect number of steps. If the officer observes two or more failures, they will have probable cause to arrest the person for drunk driving.

This test is highly problematic. For one thing, it assumes that the testee has a high degree of coordination and balance. Many people can't walk such a tight, straight line even when sober. The elderly, disabled, overweight and sick are especially disadvantaged. Vertigo, hypoglycemia and any number of other conditions affect balance and coordination, and could contribute to an unjust arrest. This test is designed as a “divided attention” device, meaning it forces drivers to focus both their mental and physical faculties at the same time. Not every driver is competent enough to do this with the required precision. Most importantly, the police frequently fail to administer the test properly. Some mistakes a police officer may make while administering the test include the failure to provide a straight line, not speaking the directions clearly or demonstrating the task at hand. They may also neglect to score the test properly and may administer it on an inappropriate surface such as soft, wet, slippery or uneven ground.

One-Legged Stand

one leg stand

The final component of the field sobriety test is the One-Legged Stand. Here, the driver is told to stand on one leg while raising the other six inches off of the ground, with toes pointed straight, while counting out loud for thirty seconds until instructed to stop. If the driver fails two of four “clues,” he or she fails. The "clues" include extending arms for balance, swaying, hopping and dropping his or her foot.

This test serves essentially the same purpose as the walk and turn in its attempt to judge whether you can maintain balance and coordination while following instructions that focus your mental attention. As with the walk and turn, elderly people, people with certain illnesses and disabilities, people who are overweight and people with bad knees suffer a marked disadvantage in this test. When the officer asks you to perform this test they are required to give you clear instructions and repeat the instructions if you are not 100% clear as to what it is they are instructing you to do. The instructions must also be given to you in your native language.

Standardized Field Sobriety Test Challenges In New Jersey

Their are many environmental factors that can influence your results during the standardized field sobriety tests such as temperature (excessive heat or cold) and inclement weather (high winds, rain or snow). If the ground which you are to perform the test is soft, wet, slippery or uneven, it can make it difficult to walk a straight line heel to toe or stand on one leg for 30 seconds as the SFST requires. When you are being given the direction for the test did the officer speak in a clear voice and demonstrate each step? Medical conditions such as vertigo, bad knees and excessive weight, among many other conditions, can make it impossible to pass the field sobriety tests.

Consult With A DWI Lawyer In Regards To Your Improper Standardized Field Sobriety Testing Results In New Jersey

If you have been arrested for DWI in New Jersey and you feel you might have been the victim of improper standardize field sobriety testing, it is imperative that you hire an experienced DWI attorney to fight your charge in court. At Villani & DeLuca, P.C., we are experienced in DWI cases just like yours! For more than 20 years, Villani & DeLuca, P.C. has been fighting drunk driving charges from across New Jersey. We have gained valuable first hand knowledge on how to challenge standardized field sobriety test.

Call Villani & DeLuca, P.C. at 732-372-0820 to speak to an experienced DWI attorneys in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. We will evaluate your Standardized Field Sobriety Test results during your FREE consultation.