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Field sobriety tests: Are false positives possible?

Imagine someone being pulled over by a police officer late at night after a long work shift. If the cop believes, for whatever reason, that this person has been consuming alcohol, field sobriety tests could be administered. These roadside exams are designed to measure coordination and balance, both of which are affected by intoxication. However, the reality is that a person who is exhausted after a long work shift could fail the tests without having consumed a drop of alcohol.

According to a legal observer, field sobriety tests are not objective. In fact, the results are completely up to a police officer's interpretation, which could erroneously cause a person to be suspected of drunk driving.

Generally speaking, field sobriety tests consist of three different examinations. In order to better understand how a sober person could fail a field test, it might be best to gain insight into the standard tests, which are as follows:

  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus: This test is supposed to detect involuntary jerking of the eye, which is associated with intoxication.
  • Walk and turn: One thing officers are looking for with this test is the ability to follow directions.
  • One-leg stand: In addition to following directions, this exam is intended to test coordination.

Although failing these tests is indeed correlated with intoxication, a number of circumstances -- such as medical conditions or fatigue -- could greatly impact a person's ability to pass a test. If a cop misinterprets a situation, a person could be accused of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Because these tests are subject to interpretation and the unique circumstances behind every traffic stop, it might be important for those who are accused of DUI to determine their legal rights. Failure to do so could result in an unfair conviction.

Source: WVIR News, "Passing a Field Sobriety Test Difficult - Drunk or Sober," Nov. 13, 2013

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