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Field Sobriety Test Usage in Texas DWI Cases

Several decades ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began to research and develop methods for assessing a person’s intoxication. By the early 1980s, police departments in Texas and across the country were using these “field tests” to determine whether they should arrest drivers for suspected drunk driving. They still use them today, and they are often a major point of contention in the prosecution of cases.

If the police recently arrested and charged you with driving while impaired (DWI) in Dallas, Fort Worth or elsewhere in North Texas, Kraft & Associates, P.C., will work with you to build a smart and effective defense strategy. One strategy that we may pursue on your behalf would be to challenge any field sobriety tests that played a role in your case.

As our DWI defense attorneys have seen over the years, these tests can be flawed. In many cases, an officer may have administered the test improperly, or the results may otherwise be invalid. Keep in mind: Police typically administer these tests on the side of the road, at night and in poor lighting, with the subject under pressure and feeling a high level of anxiety.

Most Commonly Administered DWI Field Sobriety Tests

Let’s take a closer look at the three primary DWI field sobriety tests that police administer in Texas:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus

The word “nystagmus” describes the bouncing action of one’s eye when it attempts to follow an object. The human eye normally moves fairly smoothly when it follows a moving object. Still, the eye will inherently bounce a little no matter what. The bounce is completely involuntary and beyond a person’s control. The idea behind the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test is that, if you are impaired by alcohol and/or drugs, the bounce will be more pronounced.

How it’s done: To administer the test, a police officer typically will ask you to exit your car and move you away from any flashing lights or distractions that could affect the test. The officer may ask if you wear contacts or have medical problems, which could affect the outcome. The officer will then hold a pen or stylus about 12 to 15 inches from your face and ask you to hold your head still and follow the object’s movement with just your eyes.

What police look for: As the officer moves the object back and forth across your field of vision, the officer will look for three things:

  • Lack of smooth pursuit – Do your eyes move smoothly, or do they bounce as they follow the object?
  • Distinct nystagmus at maximum deviation – Does the outer eye jerk as you sustain your view of the object?
  • Onset of nystagmus prior to 45 degrees – As the object moves toward the edge of your field of vision, does your eye jerk before the object gets to about 45 degrees from the center of your face?

Walk-and-Turn Test

This is a fairly simple test. It basically requires you to stand toe-to-heel on a line, walk a straight line, then turn and repeat. You must count out loud while you do this. The goal of this test is to determine whether your physical and mental faculties are impaired.

How it’s done: First, the officer will explain the instructions aloud, demonstrate the tasks and ask if you understand what you need to do. You will begin in the heel-to-toe position on a line. You will move and count three steps aloud. Your forward heel must touch the rear foot’s toe at each step. You will then turn around and do the same thing again. During the test, the officer may ask you to:

  • Look at your feet to watch your steps
  • Verbally count your steps aloud
  • Keep your arms at your side
  • Keep going until the officer tells you to stop.

What police look for: The police officer will watch for you to:

  • Step off the line
  • Miss heel-to-toe by more than a half-inch.
  • Stop moving or pause.
  • Fail to count aloud or miscount
  • Raise your arms more than six inches from your sides
  • Lose balance or fail to turn
  • Take the wrong number of steps.

One-Leg Stand

This test requires a person to stand straight with one foot elevated about six from the ground for no more than 30 seconds. Again, it is a basic test that focuses on your mental and physical faculties.

How it’s done: An officer will ask you to raise your foot and do one or more of the following:

  • Look at the raised foot
  • Keep arms at your sides
  • Keep the foot raised until the officer tells you to stop.
  • Count one-thousand, two-thousand and so forth.

What police look for: As you stand on one leg, the officer will see whether you:

  • Sway or move side-to-side
  • Use your arms to catch your balance
  • Hop or stumble
  • Put your foot down.

Most of the time, police officers use field sobriety tests to establish probable cause for further testing such as breath tests or blood tests. Likewise, they are a quick measurement that police can use when other tests are unavailable.

What’s the Difference Between a Field Sobriety Test and a Breath or Blood Test?

The one major difference between a field sobriety test and breath or blood tests is that, technically, you face no penalty if you refuse to submit to a field sobriety test. However, you can expect a prosecutor to use your refusal against you if your case goes to trial.

On the other hand, you could face a penalty if you refuse to submit a breath or blood sample. Under Texas law, by driving in the state, you give implied consent to a breath or blood test if the police arrest you for a suspected DWI. If you refuse, you could ultimately face a suspension of your driving privileges for 180 days (or up to two years if your refusal occurs within 10 years of a prior DWI arrest).

Should you decline to submit to either kind of test? Every situation is different. The decision will be yours alone to make. You just need to be aware that you could face legal and practical consequences if you refuse.

How Can Your Lawyer Challenge Field Sobriety Test Results?

If you have been charged with a DWI in Texas based, in part, on allegedly failing a field sobriety test, our attorneys will look for ways to challenge the validity of the tests. We have a long history of fighting field sobriety tests that police improperly administer. For instance, the officer may have followed the wrong procedure for administering the test in your case, or the officer may have given unclear or inadequate instructions. In reality, many inexperienced or biased law enforcement officers do not administer these tests in the right way, and the results should not hold up in court.

However, challenging a field sobriety test is only one of several ways to fight a DWI charge in Texas. For instance, as we work on your defense, we may challenge the legality of the stop. If the officer lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion to pull you over, then any evidence that the officer collected as a result of that stop, including field sobriety test and chemical test results, could be suppressed. Without that evidence, the prosecution may have no choice but to drop the DWI charge against you.

Additionally, the police must conduct breath and blood tests according to proper procedure. If they fail to do so, those results could be kept out of court as well.

Protect Your Rights! Contact Our Dallas DWI Lawyers Today

You need to move quickly to protect your rights and build a solid defense against a DWI charge. If you fail to take steps to defend yourself, you could face serious consequences that affect your finances, your freedom and your future. Don’t wait to get legal help for your DWI case. If you face a DWI charge in Dallas, Fort Worth or the surrounding area in North Texas, contact Kraft & Associates, P.C. You can have confidence that your defense will be in good hands.