For most people pulled over for suspicion of impaired driving in Raleigh and Wake County, the investigating officer will more than likely ask them to perform field sobriety tests. There are three separate tests that make up this battery: an eye test, and two balance tests. One balance tests involves walking heel to toe on a line and the other involves standing on one leg for thirty seconds. This page will offer you a breakdown of these tests and what officers are specifically trained to look for.
Before we look at these three tests, please remember one thing. You can never be forced to perform them. Anyone stopped in Raleigh or Wake County for DWI has the right to refuse to perform these tests regardless of what any officer may tell you.
1. The Eye Test (HGN)
The first test an officer usually asks someone to perform is an eye test formally known as the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. Horizontal gaze nystagmus is a noticeable jerking of the eyeball as it moves from side to side. Officers are told that alcohol is a substance that causes this eyeball jerking, and most of them believe that this test is the most reliable of the three. Over the course of two to five minutes, the officer will ask you to follow his finger or pen as he moves it across your face. During the course of the test, the officer is looking for six instances where your eyeballs might jerk. The more clues he notices, the more he will believe you are impaired.
There are a few things everyone should know about this test if they are ever in a situation where they are asked to perform it. First, this test has never been studied or validated by any medical institute or university. Second, the government has never published its studies on HGN in any medical or scientific journal. Third, there are literally over 35 non-impairment related conditions that cause nystagmus ranging from high blood pressure to inner ear problems. Also consider where this test will likely be performed and how that might effect what the officer actually sees. I doubt an optometrist would feel comfortable about her observations if she had to perform any clinical tests on the side of a highway in relative darkness.
2. The Walk and Turn Test
The second test an officer usually asks a DWI suspect to perform is the walk and turn test. This involves taking nine heel to toe steps down either a painted or imaginary line, turning in a specific manner, and taking another nine heel to toe steps back down the line. Many people think that they do well on this test, but they unfortunately don’t know what officers are specifically looking for. There are eight clues of impairment that can possibly be seen during this test, and you can literally exhibit half of them my making a mistake on one step.
Officers are trained to look for these things during the test:
- Can the person stay balanced in the starting position while the officer gives them instructions for the test?
- Can the person walk eighteen steps touching their heel to their toe on each step?
- Can the person walk eighteen steps without stepping off the line, even if its imaginary?
- Can the person walk eighteen heel to toe steps without using their hands for balance?
- Can the person turn after the ninth step in the instructed manner?
- Did the person stop walking during the test?
- Did the person actually take eighteen steps?
- Did the person start the test before instructed to do so?
A person could miss heel to toe, step off the line, use their arms for balance, and stop walking all in one step, and a trained officer would note that this test was utterly failed. This is even if the other seventeen steps were performed flawlessly.
3. The One Leg Stand Test
The last sobriety test usually performed by a DWI suspect is a one leg balance test. A person is asked to stand on one leg and count aloud until told to stop. Officers are trained to look for four clues that they are told are signs of impairment. Just like the walking test, many people think that they do very well on this test but are surprised to hear that they have failed. Unfortunately standing on one leg without putting your foot down is only 25% of what an officer is looking for.
- Officers are trained to look for these four things during the test:
- Did the person put their foot down within thirty seconds?
- Did the person use their arms for balance?
- Did the person hop while balancing on one leg?
- Did the person sway while balancing on one leg?
Most people are more than surprised to be placed under arrest after being able to stand on one leg for thirty seconds. Unfortunately, officers are trained that if you exhibit just two of the other clues, you have failed this test.
4. Portable Breath Test
Although the portable breath test is not part of standardized roadside testing, it is rare for someone to not be asked to do this if they are stopped for DWI in Raleigh or Wake County. Most officers carry a small machine that can allegedly give a reading of someone’s breath alcohol content. The officer will ask you to blow very hard into the tube attached into the machine; he will then wait about five minutes and ask you to do it again. The machine will produce a number, and rest assured that you will arrested if that number is at or above the legal limit. It will make little difference how well you performed the other tests.
There is one thing that everyone should know about the portable breath test machines. They are incredibly inaccurate. These devices are so inaccurate that the number result that they produce isn’t allowed to be said in a trial. Whenever the portable breath test comes up in court, the officer is only allowed to say if the result was negative or positive for the presence of alcohol. It is a shame that the tool most relied on by officers to make DWI arrest decisions is deemed so unreliable by everyone else.
It is important that everyone has an understanding of these roadside tests in the event that they find themselves in the unfortunate circumstance of being stopped for DWI. Officers are looking for clues that you had no idea about. The most important thing to remember is that these four tests are not mandatory. Citizens have the right to refuse to perform these tests if they choose. Refusing to do these tests may not save someone from being arrested, but in most cases it will make their case much stronger when it is tried in court.
Steven Saad is a Raleigh and Wake County criminal defense attorney with years of legal experience as both a defender of the accused and a former Wake County prosecutor. He is passionate about representing the people of his community that are accused of crimes and have unfortunately found themselves in our criminal system. Obtaining the best possible results in his clients’ cases is Steven’s only motivation.
During his years as a Wake County District Attorney, Steven prosecuted tens of thousands of criminal cases, giving him unparalleled insight into the criminal court process in Wake County. He thrives on the fact that a case can be won or lost in the smallest details, making preparation and communication with clients throughout a case critical.
Don’t waste an opportunity to discuss your case with an experienced and effective defense attorney and former Wake County prosecutor. Contact us today.