When a law enforcement officer suspects you of driving under the influence, they must have sufficient legal grounds – known as probable cause – to stop and arrest you. As part of their probable cause, they may note signs of impairment while you are driving, such as swerving, or signs of impairment after they pull you over for a different justifiable reason, such as running a red light. These signs of impairment can include difficult or slurred speech, red eyes, and the smell of alcohol, among others. In their efforts to gather as much probable cause against you and note signs of impairment, law enforcement officers may use certain tactics and tools available to them, including tools like field sobriety tests.
Field sobriety tests are the examinations officers use doing a DUI stop. Typically, these can include tests where an officer has you follow a pen or object with your eyes (horizontal gaze nystagmus), makes you stand and balance on one leg and count, and asks you to walk down a straight line, turn around, and walk back. These three tests comprise the Standardized Field Sobriety tests, though there may be other tests used by officers.
The first and most important thing you should know about field sobriety tests is that you are not required by law to take them. You can and should refuse field sobriety tests for several reasons:
- They are unreliable – Sobriety tests are generally unreliable at proving that a person is impaired. Physical conditions or disabilities, as well as weather conditions and environmental factors, can impact how a person performs on these tests and may result in an officer thinking they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they are not impaired. Officers at the scene may also administer sobriety tests improperly, or interpret them incorrectly.
- Prosecutors need more proof – The government has the burden of proving your guilt (including your impairment) beyond a reasonable doubt. The results of your field sobriety tests alone, even if you “failed” them, are not enough to prove that you were under the influence beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors need more proof to work with, which is partly why officers utilize these tests, as it can provide them with more time to gather probable cause and subject you to a chemical test of your breath, blood, or urine without compromising your Constitutional right to be protected from unlawful searches or seizures. Still, because these tests can provide officers and prosecutors with potentially more evidence against you, it is best to refuse the sobriety tests.
It should be noted that while you have the right to refuse field sobriety tests and even preliminary portable breathalyzer tests administered at the scene of your DUI stop, it is generally not recommended that you refuse the second chemical test. Doing so can result in an automatic suspension of your driver’s license.
Understanding and flexing your rights can be a good thing, but always remember that if an officer has probable cause to suspect you are under the influence, they will arrest you, regardless of how you fare on the field sobriety tests. Even if you are arrested, you have the right to challenge the government’s case and any evidence they have, and you have the right to work with an attorney to help you do just that.
At Suzuki Law Offices, our Phoenix criminal defense lawyers have helped protect the rights of numerous clients charged with driving under the influence. If you or someone you love has been charged with DUI, we encourage you to discuss your case with our proven defense attorneys as soon as possible. Contact us today for a free consultation.