Field Sobriety Tests

If you are stopped for suspicion of drinking and driving, one of the first things you will be requested to do is submit to a field sobriety test. Police officers will ask you to perform the tests in different ways, sometimes giving the impression they are ordering you to perform the roadside gymnastic exercises but the truth is you do not have to do the tests and there is no penalty for your refusal.

In the state of Maryland, you agree to submit to a DUI breath test when you sign for a driver’s license. This is called implied consent and refusing a chemical test can result in a separate charge against you, including a four-month suspension of your driver’s license. However, the same does not apply to the field tests; you can and should simply decline those tests since they are specifically engineered for your failure.

In Maryland, implied consent also permits the police to request a preliminary breath test, which is similar to a breath test at the police station only less reliable and you do not have to take this test either as there is no penalty for your refusal. Since this test is deemed to be less reliable then a “real” breath test, it is also advisable that a driver decline this test as well.

A standard field sobriety tests includes the horizontal-gaze nystagmus (HGN), walk-and-turn (WAT) and the one-leg-stand (OLS). These tests are designed to test your physical coordination while simultaneously testing your ability to listen and comprehend what the officer is telling you. They are called split attention tests. The problem is they are requesting you to perform ridiculous exercises which an adult would not normally do, such as walking heel to toe in a straight line or standing for 30 seconds on one leg while counting.

In 1977, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) studied different field sobriety tests in order to measure their effectiveness in detecting impairment. They theorized that the tests could reduce the number of drunk drivers on the road. The study found that these three tests worked best in assessing alcohol impairment and were easy to give to suspected drunk drivers. Originally, when all three tests were given together, they thought the tests could help determine a person’s BAC level. The tests were standardized in 1981 but Courts have correctly decided that these tests cannot be relied upon to prove any specific BAC level, but they are relied upon to show some level of physical impairment.

The NHTSA has determined that the HGN test is the most accurate of the three field sobriety tests. This test involves the law enforcement officer trafficking the subject’s eyes. The subject must follow a object, such as a pen tip, with their eyes. Police use six indicators, three per eye, to determine impairment. These “clues” as they are known include following the object smoothly with the eyes, holding the eyes at the farthest possible point to the left and right, and following the object with the eyes as it is angled toward each shoulder.

The WAT test requires the subject to listen and follow directions while acting. The suspect must walk heel-to-toe following a straight path. Once they finish, they must repeat the task in the other direction after having completed a specialized turn sequence that the officer explains. The police are looking for clues that include: premature start of the test, the ability to balance without swaying, touching heel-to-toe for 9 steps, staying on the line, balancing without use of arms, turning incorrectly, and taking the correct number of steps down the line and back.

In the OLS test, the suspect must stand with one foot off the ground (you choose the foot) and count until they are told to stop, typically to 30 seconds. Signs of impairment during this test include swaying, hopping, putting the foot down and balancing with arms.

If you have questions regarding the field sobriety exercises or you DUI charges, call us anytime at 410-484-1111.

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