Failed Field Sobriety Test

Most people know the familiar scene of an officer pulling an individual over for erratic driving, and asking the individual to exit their vehicle and perform various sobriety tests to determine if they have been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. What people are not as familiar with, however, is actually trying to perform these tests when sober. Many of the common field sobriety tests police officers use to arrest and charge individuals with drunk driving are not good indicators of whether someone is actually under the influence. In fact, many of these tests are difficult to perform sober, and many factors other than drunkenness can cause an individual to fail the test. Thus, a failed field sobriety test does not, by any means, always lead to a conviction for drunk driving.

For example, one common field sobriety test is the “walk and turn.” In this test, you are instructed to walk with one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe, then turn around and repeat in the opposite direction, often along a line on the ground. The police officer administering the test will look for general loss of balance, inability to follow the instructions, falling off the line, raising and swaying your arms for balance, pausing while walking, or missing a heel-to-toe connection. If you do any of these things, the officer can fail you. However, walking heel-to-toe along a line is more difficult than it sounds, simply because it is very unnatural for people to walk in that manner. And individuals instinctively raise their arms or pause when doing so for balance. Both of those actions, however, could be enough for a police officer to fail you. Moreover, uneven terrain, footwear, leg injuries, slippery conditions, and even nerves, can cause a perfectly sober person to fail the test.

Similarly, the one leg stand test is also a poor indicator of one’s drunkenness. For this test, you will be asked to stand on one leg, with the other leg 6 inches off the ground, and to hold it there. The police officer will be looking for swaying, use of your arms to balance, hopping, or lowering the leg in the air back to the ground. Again, this can be a difficult test on its own, and can be complicated by factors such as age, health, nerves, footwear, and terrain.

Even just reciting the alphabet can be a challenge when combined with the anxiety one feels when pulled over and asked to perform these tests. And, these tests have no correlation to one’s actual blood alcohol content level or one’s driving ability.

Finally, when a police officer writes up a report and indicates that you failed a field sobriety test, the officer usually does not report all of the things you did right, and only focuses on the things you did incorrectly. For example, in the walk and turn test, the report may say that you swayed and flailed your arms for balance, without mentioning that you stayed on the line the whole time. Or, if you only used your arms for the last couple steps, the report will not say that you performed the test perfectly until the final steps. It will simply say that you flailed your arms. There are few objective measures of “failure” too – a failed test is really just one officer’s opinion of your performance. It does not definitively mean you were drunk driving.

For all of these reasons, failing a field sobriety test is far from a conviction for drunk driving. The best thing to do in these situations is to not panic. Comply with the officer’s orders, as best you can, and stay calm. If you are arrested and brought back to the station, cooperate with the officers and, at the earliest possible moment, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. You need a lawyer who specializes in operating under the influence (OUI) cases, and who will know how to expose the weaknesses in the officer’s report.

At the law firm of Altman & Altman, our Massachusetts OUI defense team has been handling drunk driving cases in courts throughout the Commonwealth for over 40 years. We have extensive experience in analyzing reports of failed field sobriety tests, and exposing the flaws in the tests themselves, and in the way in which the officer carried out the test. Our lawyers are skillful trial attorneys who can convey these problems to judges and juries, and will work tirelessly to get you the best result possible.

We provide all clients with a free and confidential case consultation to discuss the specifics of their case, and to fully explain their legal rights and options. With offices located in downtown Boston and in Cambridge, we are easily accessible to residents throughout the Greater Boston area. If you have been charged with operating under the influence, call our office today to schedule your consultation and get the help you need to resolve your case.

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