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Are Field Sobriety Tests Fair for Drivers Suspected of OVI/DUI?

June 19, 2020

The state of Ohio focuses on safe driving, which includes keeping the roads free of drivers who may be under the influence of alcohol.

Someone stopped on suspicion of OVI/DUI could face three field sobriety tests, but based on the driver's physical or mental state, are these tests fair?

Sobriety tests overview

The three field sobriety tests are the one-leg stand, the walk-and-turn and the horizontal gaze nystagmus. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration developed this group of tests and the goal is to reliably determine a driver's intoxication level. Law enforcement officers receive training in administering the tests and grading the results.

Physical and mental concerns

Certain neurological conditions could cause a driver to fail the horizontal gaze nystagmus test used to measure involuntary jerking of the eyes. Officers should not ask drivers who have a physical disability, are more than 50 pounds overweight or who are over the age of 65 to take the walk-and-turn or one-leg stand tests. In fact, the latter is often found to be inaccurate for people who have physical issues such as balance problems; ear infections; back, leg or foot problems; sciatica; circulation issues; and more.

Less than ideal conditions

Field sobriety tests usually take place after dark with noisy traffic passing close by, lights on the police car blinking and other lights trained on the driver and the testing area. The terrain is probably not smooth, which can be troublesome for the person who submits to these tests. The officer should always ensure that the driver understands the instructions for the sobriety tests. However, under such conditions, the driver may feel very anxious and, as a result, may not completely understand what to do.

Different opinions

Although fairness is the foundation for the three field sobriety tests, they are subjective. The grade given by one police officer might not be the same as that supplied by another. Although a driver may refuse to submit to field sobriety testing, he or she may feel compelled to comply. Success or failure may hinge on the physical or mental issues the driver may have and on the passing grade the law officer believes is fair.