Criminal Defense & Social Security Disability Law

How can a field sobriety test result in a false arrest?

Field sobriety tests are not always known for their accuracy. It is possible that an officer might mistake a sober person for being intoxicated.

The upcoming holiday season means that law enforcement in Virginia and elsewhere is likely to increase efforts to curtail drunk driving. For some, this means that they will be asked to perform a field sobriety test during a traffic stop.

What does a field sobriety test entail?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the standardized field sobriety test relies on a police officer’s own judgment to determine if a driver has been drinking, rather than the chemical results of a blood or urine test. The way a person performs during the test may influence the officer to let the person go or to make an arrest for driving while intoxicated.

Field sobriety tests frequently consist of the one-leg stand, the walk-and-turn and an alphabet quiz. Each of these assessments measures a subject’s ability to understand and follow directions, to stand or walk without losing one’s balance and to move steadily. The officer will also look into the driver’s eyes for movement that is usually pronounced during intoxication which is the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. Generally, law enforcement will also request the driver to take a preliminary breath test (PBT), which a driver may refuse. If the results of that test reveal a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher, that may preclude an attempt to have the case dismissed for lack of probable cause to arrest. This PBT is not to be confused with the ECIR II formal breath test at the station which carries punishment for refusal.

Can a sober person be arrested?

It is entirely possible that an officer might make a mistake while using his or her personal judgment. According to ABC Action News, these tests are not known for their high levels of accuracy, which may lead to people being falsely arrested for drunk driving. A person with an inner ear problem or natural difficulty balancing may have a hard time passing the walking and balancing parts of the test. Someone with an injury, illness or cognitive disorder may also fail the physical portion of the assessment. A person with a speech impediment or red eyes from fatigue or allergies might be mistaken for being drunk. It is also possible for a nervous person to have difficulty understanding an officer’s instructions.

In one experiment, three sober people took the field sobriety test in a shopping center’s parking lot. According to NBC 29 News, all three passed but experienced some level of difficulty. Two had problems balancing and one was unable to completely understand the instructions. They all agreed that they might have more difficulty passing the test in a real situation.

Those who are arrested for drunk driving will need competent legal representation to protect their rights. It may be necessary to speak with an experienced DUI defense attorney in Fairfax. An attorney should be able to honestly and clearly answer questions and explain the legal process.