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Understanding field sobriety tests in Washington

On Behalf of | Jul 8, 2020 | DUI |

You’ve seen them in the movies. You have seen police conducting them on the side of a busy highway. You may have even been subjected to them. They are known as “field sobriety tests,” and they are one of the first tools that law enforcement uses to determine whether Washington drivers are impaired.

But what are these tests looking for? And how accurate are they? Do you have the right to refuse to take them? These are the questions we’ll address in today’s post.

The standard set of field sobriety tests (FSTs) includes three tests. They are the:

  • Walk-and-turn: the subject must take a certain number of steps along a straight line (heel to toe), turn on one foot and come back again in the same manner. The officer looks for failure to follow directions, balance issues, starting before directions are finished, etc.
  • One-leg stand: The subject is asked to stand on one foot while lifting the other about six inches off the ground. He must then count aloud with his foot lifted until told to stop (usually about 30 seconds). The officer looks for balance problems like swaying, putting the foot down early, hopping or using arms to maintain balance.
  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus: The officer tells the subject to follow a moving pen or small flashlight with his eyes. As the object moves from side to side, the officer looks for when an involuntary jerking of the eyes occurs (known as the horizontal gaze nystagmus). When a person is impaired, the HGN occurs at shallower angles than when sober. Officer is also looking for difficulty following an object with the eyes.

Interpretations of the results are subjective and left to the officer’s judgment. In all three cases, the officer is looking for the subject to fail as a pretext to subject him to more invasive but objective testing (usually the portable breath-alcohol testing device).

Are These Tests Accurate?

According to various studies, these tests can reliably predict impairment in test subjects. That being said, there are many reasons why a sober person could fail. If you generally suffer from balance or mobility issues, for instance, the first two tests could be very difficult to perform, even under ideal conditions. The HGN test could be tainted by the environment. Most of us find it harder to see well while on the side of a busy highway at night.

Can You Refuse FSTs in Washington?

You do have the right to refuse to take the tests. The State Supreme Court has ruled, however, that refusal could be used against you (as evidence that you knew you were impaired). This evidence may not be all that compelling, though, especially if you state a reason for refusal (such as health issues or your belief that the tests are subjective).

Ultimately, if you have been stopped for DUI and arrested, the most important decision you can make is what to do next. Thankfully, that decision is easy: contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help protect your rights and freedoms.