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Field Sobriety Testing in California DUI Cases

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Field Sobriety Testing in the East Bay

In the state of California, it is unlawful for a driver to operate a vehicle with a BAC (blood alcohol content) of .08% or greater. If an officer pulls a driver over under the suspicion of DUI, it is likely that the officer will ask the driver to participate in one or more field sobriety tests. An officer uses field sobriety tests in order to help determine the driver's level of intoxication.

Although each test is unique, there are certain clues that an officer will look for no matter which test is being administered. The tests are said to be used to judge a driver's physical coordination and balance, alertness level, ability to follow instructions, and general coherence. If a police officer determines that the driver has failed a field sobriety test, he or she is presumed to be intoxicated and that gives the officer probable cause to arrest the driver for DUI.

Types of Field Sobriety Tests in California

There is a variety of field sobriety tests that an officer can use when he or she suspects a driver of being under the influence of alcohol. However, there are only three tests that have been standardized by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). These three tests include: HGN, Walk and Turn, and One-Leg Stand.

(1) HGN (Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus):

According to guidelines set out by the NHTSA, the police officer must administer the test in a way that allows the officer to clearly see the driver's eyes. The officer should ask if the driver suffers from any kind of medical impairment. This is important because certain impairments can cause a driver to fail.

The test is administered by the officer moving a pen (or similar item) back and forth, side to side, in front of the driver's face. The driver is told to follow the pen's movement. The pen will be approximately one foot away from his or her face.

Intoxication Clues Observed by California Officers:

During the test, an officer will be looking for six clues (three in each eye) that relate to the movements of the eyes:

  • Distinct nystagmus at maximum deviation: Here, the officer will start at the center of the driver's face and move the pen towards the left ear. The driver's eyes are being brought over as far as possible. The officer will hold the pen there for approximately four seconds. The officer will look to see if any jerking of the eye occurs. The officer will repeat the motion with the other eye.
  • Angle of onset of nystagmus prior to 45 degrees: Here, the officer moves the pen towards the edge of the driver's left shoulder. This movement takes approximately four seconds. The officer will take note if the there is jerking of the eyes before the pen reaches 45 degrees from the center of the driver's face. This is then repeated with the other eye.
  • Lack of smooth pursuit: During this step, the officer is slowly moving the pen from the center of the driver's face to his or her left ear. The eye should move smoothly. If there is jerking, the officer takes note. The step is repeated with the other eye.

(2) One-Leg Stand:

When an officer decides to administer this test, he or she will have the driver step out of the car and stand with one foot approximately six inches off the ground, with his toe pointed. The officer will instruct the driver to keep his balance while counting out loud for thirty seconds. The counting begins with one thousand-one, one thousand-two, and so on. At this point, the driver's arms must stay down and he or she should be looking down.

Intoxication Clues:

During this test, the officer will be looking for a variety of clues to determine the driver's intoxication:

  • Whether the driver sways while trying to keep his or her balance
  • Whether the driver puts his or her foot down before the test is completed
  • Whether the driver hops in order to maintain his or her balance
  • Whether the driver uses his or her arms to try and maintain balance

(3) Walk and Turn:

During this test, the officer will have the driver stand and put one foot in front of the other. The driver's feet should be in a straight line. Then, the officer will explain the process and demonstrate how the driver should perform the test. The officer will be instructing the driver to take nine heel-to-toe steps. After the nine steps have been taken, the driver is expected to turn and repeat the process in the opposite direction. While performing the test, the driver's arms should keep his or her hands at their side. Also, the steps should be counted out loud by the driver.

Intoxication Clues:

During the Walk and Turn, an officer will be looking to see if the driver:

  • Steps off the line
  • Uses his or her arms for balance
  • Fails to touch heel-to-toe
  • Makes an improper turn
  • Takes the wrong number of steps
  • Is unable to keep his or her balance while being told of the instructions

Do You Need an Attorney?

If you have been arrested for DUI in Alameda or Contra Costa County after participating in a field sobriety test, take a moment to consult with a DUI defense attorney. Failing a field sobriety test does not automatically mean you are guilty! Lynn Gorelick has been representing clients in the area for more than 30 years. Do not hesitate to contact Ms. Gorelick to schedule a free, initial consultation in order to discuss the facts of your case.

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