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Roadside ABC and Counting Tests for DUIs

Watching television shows with police officers making roadside drunk driving traffic stops, the officers used all kinds of tests to determine if the driver was impaired. The tests often seemed to only humiliate the driver who already appeared too impaired to safely drive. Police still use these tests even if they are not always reliable. This includes non-standardized tests like the ABC or counting tests.

Field sobriety tests are not required and there are no penalties for refusing a roadside sobriety test. Even the standardized field sobriety tests are not required in California DUI traffic stops. Failing a field sobriety test does not necessarily mean you are impaired. If you were arrested for a DUI in Oakland or the East Bay, talk to an experienced California DUI defense attorney for help.

What Are Field Sobriety Tests?

Field sobriety tests are roadside tests used by police officers to help them gather evidence that a driver is impaired so they have probable cause to make an arrest. Over the years, there have been dozens of tests police officers use in different states to evaluate drivers. Now, there are 3 so-called "standardized field sobriety tests," that are approved for use by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

The standardized tests are reported to have higher rates of accuracy but none of these tests are 100%. The 3 standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs) include: 

There are some non-standardized field sobriety tests that some police officers use. These tests may have even lower rates of reliability but that does not stop police departments from still using these questionable tests. Non-standardized field sobriety tests include: 

Alphabet Test for Roadside DUIs in California

Police officers can be certified in DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (SFST). The training material sanctioned by the NHTSA is supposed to "prepare police officers and other qualified persons to conduct the SFSTs for use in DWI investigations."

The "Alphabet Test" is another technique to test a driver's ability to multitask mentally and physically. According to the NHTSA, "This technique requires the driver to recite a part of the alphabet. You instruct the driver to recite the alphabet beginning with a letter other than A and stopping at a letter other than Z."

For example, an Oakland police officer could tell the driver, "recite the alphabet, beginning with the letter F as in Frank and stop at the letter O as in Octopus." This is a type of divided attention test where the driver has to concentrate on starting at one letter while remaining where to stop. People are used to saying the alphabet from A to Z but starting at another letter can present a different kind of challenge.

However, there are lots of problems with this test. Like a lot of other tests, it may not be very useful for people who speak English as a second language. The East Bay of California is a very diverse place with people coming to live or work from all over the globe. Children who grow up in the U.S. are used to reciting their ABCs and can do it second nature. However, people who grow up with a language other than English may have different alphabets and do not think of the ABCs in the same way as native English speakers.

There are other people who may have difficulty with these types of divided-attention tests. Individuals with certain learning disabilities may be considered safe to get their driver's license but they can have difficulty with these tests, even when completely sober. Environmental factors can also make it more difficult to follow the test instructions, including loud roadside traffic, flashing lights, intimidating police presence, or having to listen to multiple police officers speaking at the same time. 

Count Down Field Sobriety Test

The "Count Down" technique is a test that is similar to the ABC test but uses numbers instead of letters. This test is not seen regularly.  According to NHTSA, "this technique requires the driver to count out loud 15 or more numbers in reverse sequence." Officers are not supposed to start with numbers ending in 0 or 5 because it supposedly makes the numbers too easy to remember.

For example, a police officer in Richmond may tell a driver to "count out loud backwards, starting with the number 67 and ending with the number 52."

There are plenty of ways to understand why someone might "fail" this test, even if they were not impaired. A tired driver may have similar difficulty recalling numbers while counting backward even with no alcohol or drugs in their system. The driver could also have misheard the officer if the officer was not speaking slowly and clearly, leaving the driver "failing" the test because the officer did not provide clear instructions. 

Finger Count Test

This "Finger Count" test is rarely used because, like so many of the other tests, it does not have a great history of reliability. According to the NHTSA, "In this technique, the driver is asked to touch the tip of the thumb to the tip of each finger on the same hand while simultaneously counting up one, two, three, four; then to reverse direction on the fingers while simultaneously counting down four, three, two, one."

If I Did the Tests and Failed, Can I Challenge Their Use in Court?"

You don't have to do the roadside field sobriety tests. However, even if you did, it is not proof you were impaired. Your attorney can challenge the use of your field sobriety test results in court. Your attorney could file a pretrial motion to have the field sobriety tests suppressed or kept from the jury. Your attorney can also present evidence to the jury that these tests are not always reliable and should not have been used to justify your arrest. 

Talk to an East Bay DUI Defense Lawyer About Your Case

Lynn Gorelick has more than 39 years of East Bay DUI defense experience and understands how much is at stake after a drunk driving arrest. She understands how to approach the individual facts of each case for the greatest chance of success to keep her clients out of jail. If you are facing DUI charges anywhere in Oakland, Alameda County, or Contra Costa County, contact Lynn Gorelick. 

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