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Are Field Sobriety Tests Designed to be Failed?

CA DUI LawyerRoadside field sobriety tests (“FSTs”) are commonly used by police officers in DUI investigations to determine whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol. Typically, they consist of a battery of 3-5 exercises, such as walk-and turn, one-leg stand, “nystagmus” (“follow the pencil with your eyes”), finger-to-nose, alphabet recitation, “Rohmberg” (eyes-closed-position-of-attention), etc. The officer may subjectively decide whether the individual “failed”, or he may decide after applying recent federal “standardized” scoring.

These DUI tests have an aura of scientific credibility. Unfortunately, however, they have no real basis in science and are almost useless in a drunk driving case.

First, as any traffic officer or DUI attorney knows, the decision to arrest is made at the driver’s window; the FSTs given supposedly to determine probable cause to arrest are actually for the purpose of gathering evidence.

Second, since the officer has already made up his mind, his subjective decision as to whether a person passed or failed field sobriety tests is suspect: as with any human, he will “see” what he expects to see.

Third, the conditions under which the field sboriety tests are taken almost guarantee failure: usually late at night, possibly cold, along a graveled or sloped roadside, with bright headlights from passing cars (setting up wind waves), the officer’s flashlight and patrol car’s strobe and headlights providing the lighting — and given to a person who is nervous, frightened and completely unfamiliar with the tests.

Fourth, field sobriety tests are irrelevant and, in fact, designed for failure. What scientific basis exists to validate FSTs in a DUI investigation? Only a “study” by a private business firm, the “Southern California Research Institute”, with a grant from the federal government to find a “standardized” battery of usable DUI tests.

To earn their money, SCRI came up with three tests which, they said, were not foolproof but were much better than all of the other FSTs that were being used. Yet after some study even this company concluded that, using the three standardized tests, 47 percent of the subjects tested would have been arrested for DUI — even though they were under the .10% limit. (Burns and Moskowitz, Psychophysical Tests for DWI Arrest: Final Report, DOT-HS-802-424, NHTSA, 1977.)

The company was sent back to the drawing board and, in 1981 came up with some better figures: only 32 percent of those who “failed” the tests were actually innocent. (Tharp, Burns and Moskowitz, Development and Field Sobriety Test of Psychophysical Tests for DWI Arrests: Final Report, DOT-HS-805-864, NHTSA, 1981.) Well, SCRI was paid to put their stamp of approval on a set of field sobriety tests.

But what has been the reaction of the (non-profit) scientific community? In 1991, Dr. Spurgeon Cole of Clemson University conducted a study on the accuracy of FSTs. His staff videotaped individuals performing six common field sobriety tests, then showed the tapes to 14 police officers and asked them to decide whether the suspects had “had too much to drink and drive”. Unknown to the officers, the blood-alcohol concentration of each of the 21 DUI subjects was .00%, stone sober.

The results: the officers gave their opinion that 46% of these innocent people were too drunk to drive! In other words, the field sobriety tests were hardly more accurate at detecting intoxication than flipping a coin. Cole and Nowaczyk, “Field Sobriety Tests: Are they Designed for Failure?”, 79 Perceptual and Motor Skills Journal 99 (1994).

If you need to speak to an attorney specialized in DUI defense in Southern California, please call The Law Offices of Lawrence Taylor (562.989.4774).  With offices located in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties, the firm has limited its practice to DUI defense exclusively since 1979.  Further information may be viewed at the firm’s website: http://www.duicentral.com.  

About Lawrence Taylor

Lawrence Taylor
Lawrence Taylor is one of the most respected DUI defense attorneys in the country. With over 43 years experience in DUI defense, he has lectured to attorneys at over 200 seminars in 41 states. An original founder and former Dean of the National College for DUI Defense, Mr. Taylor's book "Drunk Driving Defense" has been the best-selling textbook on the subject for 31 years and is now in its 7th edition. He is today one of only 5 DUI attorneys in California who is Board-certified as a DUI defense specialist. A former Marine and graduate of the University of California at Berkeley (1966) and the UCLA School of Law (1969), Lawrence Eric Taylor served as deputy public defender and deputy district attorney in Los Angeles before entering private practice. He was the trial judge's legal advisor in People vs Charles Manson, was Supreme Court counsel in the Onion Field murder case and was retained by the Attorney General of Montana as an independent Special Prosecutor to conduct a one-year grand jury probe of governmental corruption. Turning to teaching, Mr. Taylor served on the faculty of Gonzaga University School of Law, where he was voted Professor of the Year, was invited to be Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University Law School, and was finally appointed Fulbright Professor of Law at Osaka University in Japan. Mr. Taylor continues to limit the practice of his 5-attorney Southern California law firm to DUI defense exclusively. With offices in Long Beach, Irvine, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Riverside and Carlsbad, Mr. Taylor and his firm of DUI defense attorneys may be reached through their website at www.duicentral.com or by telephone at (800) 777-3349.

If you would like to contact the author, please visit: http://www.duicentral.com/


One comment

  1. Good video, There is a common perception out there that DUI is about obviously drunk people driving. In reality there is a large number of defendents who have had one or two drinks and are perfectly coherent and able but the inaccuracy of the machine, poor field conditions and the reliance on assuming everyone is average in height, weight, medical condition, balance, sleep, diet etc convicts them. This is why you have seen an explosion of high profile, responsible people get convicted.

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