Police Officer Administering a Field Sobriety TestVirginia law enforcement officers regularly use field sobriety tests to determine whether motorists are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. However, field sobriety tests—as ubiquitous as they may be—are anything but scientific. Since field sobriety tests have inherent flaws, the police cannot legally compel detained drivers to consent to roadside examinations.

Unfortunately, many people feel they have no choice but to comply with the officer’s instructions. While poor performance on a field sobriety test might seem like inescapable evidence of intoxication, an experienced Virginia DUI attorney could help you avoid the stigma of a life-long criminal record.

Field Sobriety Tests in Virginia

Field sobriety tests, or FSTs, are a special category of standardized tests which police use to determine whether a detained motorist is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In Virginia, law enforcement usually use the following tests to assess impairment:

  • The Walk and Turn Test. When administering a field sobriety test, the police may ask the suspect to walk, heel-to-toe, in a straight line, counting their steps out loud. After the suspect has taken about nine paces, they will be asked to turn around and repeat the pattern.
  • The One-Leg-Stand Test. The One-Leg-Stand test requires the suspect to raise their leg about six inches off the ground, keeping their foot pointed out. While balancing on one leg, the suspect may be asked to maintain their position and count out loud until the officer tells them to stop.
  • The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test. In the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, the officer will instruct the suspect to look at a pen, a light, or a finger, which is then moved horizontally across the suspect’s field of vision. During the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, the investigating officer will observe whether the suspect can track the object’s movement smoothly and without excessive, involuntarily jerking of the eyes, which is called “nystagmus.”

The Problem With Field Sobriety Tests

Field sobriety tests are administered by individual police officers. Since the investigating officer must rely upon their own judgment when determining whether a suspect has “passed” or “failed,” they may misinterpret the side effects of anxiety, fatigue, or an unrelated medical condition as signs of substance-induced impairment.

Although Virginia police officers usually receive multi-day training on the proper administration of field sobriety tests, they frequently make mistakes. An officer could inadvertently jeopardize an examination by:

  • Providing the suspect with unclear instructions
  • Making incorrect observations
  • Performing the test under less-than-ideal conditions

Often, environmental factors can also confound test results. For example:

  • If the suspect is asked to perform a movement-related test on wet grass, gravel, or dirt, they could lose their balance or stumble.
  • If the police officer has left their headlights on or there is heavy traffic in the area, the suspect’s ability to track an object during the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test could be compromised.

Needless to say, police officers are only human—if they believe that a detained driver is under the influence of alcohol, they may look for evidence that appears to confirm their suspicions, instead of considering alternate explanations for an individual’s inability to complete or pass a field sobriety test.

Contact a Virginia DUI Attorney Today

An arrest and conviction for DUI or DWI can have life-altering repercussions. If you have been wrongfully charged with driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated, you have the right to challenge the state’s evidence against you. A Virginia defense attorney could help counter the prosecutor’s strategy, whether by moving the court to dismiss the results of a poorly-administered field sobriety test, by cross-examining the investigating officer, or by offering alternate explanations for your performance.

You do not have to put your future in the hands of an overworked public defender. Please connect with James E. Short, PLC, by using our online contact form, or call our office at 757-410-5042 to schedule your initial consultation as soon as possible.