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Field Sobriety Test In California

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Attorney Edgar P Lombera

Field Sobriety Test In California

Field sobriety tests (FSTs) are a series of tests that measure a person’s agility, attention, coordination, and balance.  When an officer stops someone for driving under the influence, the person may be asked to perform a series of field sobriety tests.  While the person performs the test, the officer will closely monitor the person’s balance, coordination, and ability to follow directions.  Field sobriety tests are voluntary, which means a person has the right to refuse to perform them.

If a person chooses to perform the field sobriety tests, they will first be asked to step outside of their motor vehicle.  The person will then be asked to complete certain tasks such as touching their finger to their nose, walking and turning, and following a pen from side-to-side with their eyes.  The officer will observe the person as they perform the field sobriety tests and subjectively take note of the person’s ability to pass or fail each test. 

It is important to note that even a sober person could have difficulty passing the field sobriety tests.  A person could fail the tests for many reasons, including poor instructions, fatigue, weather conditions, and nervousness.  Each tests’ degree of difficulty could also impact a person’s ability to pass or fail.  Scientific studies have shown that most field sobriety tests are unreliable, which has lead some states to adopt a set of 3 standardized tests: the walk and turn test, the one leg stand test, and the nystagmus test. 

Walk and Turn Test
During the walk and turn test, the officer asks the person to take nine heel-to-toe steps, stop, turn, and take nine more heel-to-toe steps.  While the person performs the test, the officer will look to see if he or she can follow instructions, maintain balance, and stay on a designated line. 

One Leg Stand Test
During the one leg test, the person will be asked to stand with their heels together and their arms at their side.  The officer will then ask the person to raise one leg six inches off of the ground and to count out loud until told to stop.  The officer will watch to see if the person loses balance, sways, or puts their foot down.

Nystagmus Test
During the nystagmus test, also known as the horizontal or vertical gaze test, the officer will hold an object, such as a pen, about 12 to 15 inches from the person’s face.  The officer will then move the object from side-to-side while watching the person’s eyes.  If the person’s eyes involuntarily jerk or tremble, it can be interpreted as a sign that the person has consumed alcohol. 

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