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Field Sobriety Testing

California DUI field sobriety tests

NHTSA Standard Tests and California Tests

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) promulgates three standardized field sobriety tests as a tool for law enforcement officers to aid them in trying to determine whether a motorist may or may not have an alcohol level at or above the per se limit of .08 percent or higher. The three standardized tests are:

  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus
  • Walk and Turn
  • One Leg Stand

California police officers are known to utilize non-standardized tests in addition to or as a substitute for the standardized tests, and these include but are not necessarily limited to the following:

  • Romberg (balance and internal clock estimation)
  • Alphabet (written, oral, and sometimes only a portion of it)
  • Finger-to-Nose
  • Finger Count
  • Counting backwards from random number
  • Hand slap (palm to back of hand with 1-2, 1-2 counting)

Although these tests were never intended or designed to determine whether a driver is impaired, the results are often misleadingly used by prosecutors to argue impairment to juries.

There were three core studies on standardized field sobriety testing (SFST) done in conjunction with Marcelline Burns, Ph.D., one of the founders of the Southern California Research Institute.

Colorado SFST Validation Study (1995)

Florida SFST Validation Study (1997)

San Diego SFST Validation Study (1998)

These experiments were funded by government grants from NHTSA.

The studies came up with estimates as to what the percentage would be of individuals over the per se limit if they failed one or more of the standardized tests.

Among the problems with letting prosecutors place too much reliance upon these tests, however, is that (a) the test subjects in these various experiments were not suffering the anxiety typically associated with one being investigated on the side of the road and subject to possible arrest; (b) not everyone is a healthy young college student or cadet with normal weight and good coordination skills; and (c) police officers often stray from administering the tests with the strict protocols utilized in these studies.

A DUI DEFENSE ATTORNEY PROPERLY TRAINED ON THE LIMITATIONS OF FIELD SOBRIETY TESTING CAN DEBUNK MANY OF THE ASSUMPTIONS MADE ABOUT ONE’S PERFORMANCE ON THEM!

CALL BOARD-CERTIFIED DUI DEFENSE ATTORNEY PAUL BURGLIN

(415) 729-7300

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