In most situations, police officers and state troopers fail to follow these testing guidelines correctly, which invalidates or taints the results of these tests.

Alfonso Gambone
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A Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer representing accused persons throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

A drunk driving charge can happen to anyone!  Recent news stories about professional football and baseball players accused of this criminal offense show that it doesn’t discriminate based on age, race or income level.  Our law firm, based in Philadelphia, wants to be a resource in this area and so we’ve made a commitment to constantly publish information for people who find themselves in this situation.  This article focuses on the Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) and how performance on them isn’t always indicative of intoxication, impairment and a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over the legal limit (.08)  


The 3 Most Common SFST 


Prior to an arrest on suspicion of DUI or drunk driving, officers will often administer field sobriety tests to a person. I have written and made videos on all of these tests and the 3 most common are: the walk and turn, the one leg stand test, and the horizontal gaze and nystagmus test (HGN). I encourage you to read these previous articles and watch these videos for more information on these topics. The focus of this article, however, is to provide 3 reasons why a person may fail these tests other than impairment. Your criminal defense lawyer can use some or all of these reasons in an argument during a motion to suppress where probable cause to arrest is an issue and also at trial where the prosecution attempts to use the results to establish impairment. 


SFST aren’t a reliable indicator of impairment or intoxication  


The most important concept to keep in mind is that field sobriety tests aren’t reliable indicators of intoxication or driving impairment. Studies show the accuracy of these tests is between 65-77% and that is only in cases where the tests are administered within the prescribed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidelines. In most situations, police officers and state troopers fail to follow these guidelines correctly, which invalidates or taints the results of these tests. The NHTSA has developed a detailed set of instructions on how to administer and score these tests.  Your defense attorney should consider challenging the administration part to establish that the results are not valid based on poor administration.  


The SFST are usually video recorded.  Your attorney should ask for the tape or DVD! 


In many situations, field sobriety tests are video recorded and your attorney can review the video to identify any mistakes that the officer has made during test administration and call these deficiencies to the attention of the judge or jury.   


In addition to improper test administration, issues such as the roadside environment and the general health of the person being tested can also call into question the validity of these results.  



The Most Common Reason for a Bad SFST Results 


Further, the most common reasons why a judge or jury should question the validity of field sobriety tests are the following: 


  1. Lack of a benchmark—the police officer has more than likely never met the individual and would therefore not know how the person would perform if he had not consumed alcohol. No two individuals will perform exactly the same on balance and dexterity tests, and so the results will vary between individuals. Some individuals are far more coordinated than others. 


  1. Non-impairment reasons for poor performance—a person may also perform poorly on field sobriety tests because of distractions such as rotating or strobe lights on a police cruiser, medical conditions such as back, leg, or middle ear problems, medications, caffeine, nicotine, aspirin, uneven or slippery roadways, unstable footwear (high heels), weight, and even age. 


  1. Complex instructions in a short period of time Finally, performance on field sobriety tests requires that a person process complex instructions given during a short period of time. These tests have numerous requirements and despite their complexity the test is often only explained once and demonstrated once (15 seconds on average). A person is then expected to remember the instructions without any opportunity to study or practice. 


Your attorney should use all of these arguments if your drunk driving case is proceeding to trial at the pre-trial and trial level. For more information on drunk driving defenses I encourage you to visit my free download section to access my book 5 Ways To Fight & Win Your Pennsylvania DUI Case and keep reading my blog. 

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