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Criminal Defense

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The Role of Field Sobriety Tests in California DUI Cases

Stop Drinking and Driving Road Sign, Red and White Stop Sign with words DUI and car and drink symbols with sky background

If you’ve been arrested for driving under the influence (DUI or “drunk driving”) in California, don’t despair. You may have one or more strong defenses available to fight the charges against you. An experienced DUI defense attorney can evaluate your case and possible defenses and work to get the best possible outcome, whether that means getting the charges reduced or dropped, negotiating a favorable plea, or taking your case to court.

One aspect of a DUI arrest that can play a key role in your defense occurs when field sobriety tests were used during the roadside stop prior to your arrest. Below we delve into what these field sobriety tests are and how they can affect your prosecution and defense. If you have been arrested for driving under the influence or other California criminal offenses in Ventura County, contact the Law Office of Paul Tyler to review your situation with a skilled and knowledgeable Oxnard DUI defense lawyer.

How Field Sobriety Tests Are Administered

Field sobriety tests (FSTs) are typically administered by law enforcement when a driver is suspected of driving under the influence. These tests are designed to assess a person’s physical and cognitive abilities to perform tasks, which can be difficult if impaired by alcohol or drugs. The most common FSTs include:

  1. Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test: An officer will observe the eyes of a driver as they follow a moving object, usually a flashlight or a pen, to see if there is an involuntary jerking of the eye, which can be a sign of intoxication.

  2. Walk-and-Turn Test: This test requires the driver to walk nine steps heel-to-toe along a straight line, turn on one foot, and return in the same manner. The officer will look for signs of impairment such as inability to maintain balance, stopping while walking, not following directions, or not touching heel-to-toe.

  3. One-Leg Stand Test: The driver must stand with one foot approximately six inches off the ground and count aloud by thousands until told to put the foot down. Officers will watch for swaying, hopping, or using arms to balance, which indicate possible impairment.

These tests are standardized and endorsed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but they must be conducted under specific conditions and by trained officers to ensure accuracy.

Role of Field Sobriety Tests in DUI Arrests

Field sobriety tests are a critical component of the DUI investigation process. They are said to provide preliminary evidence of a driver’s impairment, which can be used to justify an arrest and subsequent chemical testing for blood alcohol content (BAC). But critics of FSTs point to the highly subjective nature of the tests; how they are “scored” and whether the driver “passes” lies solely in the officer’s judgment. One argument against FSTs is that their actual purpose is to provide the police with a reason to place the driver under arrest and require a chemical test, rather than to accurately assess whether one might be intoxicated or impaired.

Even successful performance on FSTs does not necessarily mean a driver will avoid arrest, especially if other evidence of impairment (such as erratic driving behavior or the presence of alcohol) is noted by the officer.

Challenges to the Validity of Field Sobriety Tests

Although widely used, field sobriety tests are not foolproof and can be subject to significant legal challenges. Common issues that may be raised include:

  • Test Conditions: Poor conditions such as uneven surfaces, bad weather, or inadequate lighting can affect a driver’s performance on FSTs.

  • Non-Alcohol Related Impairment: Conditions like physical injuries, neurological disorders, fatigue, or anxiety can lead to poor performance on these tests, which may not be related to alcohol consumption.

  • Improper Administration: If the officer administering the test has not been properly trained, or if the tests are not conducted in a standardized manner, the results may be contested.

  • Subjectivity: The interpretation of FST results can be highly subjective. What one officer considers as a sign of impairment, another might not.

Contact the Law Office of Paul Tyler After a DUI Arrest in Oxnard or Ventura County

At the Law Office of Paul Tyler, we scrutinize the details surrounding the administration and results of FSTs to ensure our clients receive a robust defense. Understanding the potential for error in these tests can often be the key to a successful outcome in DUI cases. If you have been arrested for DUI in Ventura County, call the Law Office of Paul Tyler in Oxnard at 805-889-9000 for a free consultation to evaluate your case and explore your options.

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