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Can You Refuse or Fail a Field Sobriety Test? (What to Expect)

Table of Contents

In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 10,497 people died from accidents relating to impaired driving in 2016. The alarming numbers revealed that people surveyed self-reported impaired driving 111 million times, but only 1 million people were arrested for being under the influence of substances.

Law enforcement officials across the country use field sobriety tests to remove impaired drivers from the road and prevent these avoidable fatalities or injuries.

If you fail a field sobriety test, you’ll be asked to take another test, such as a breathalyzer test, to confirm the findings. You can refuse a field sobriety test, but doing so will usually result in legal consequences.

What Is a Field Sobriety Test?

Field sobriety tests consists of three parts. An officer can tell if a person is driving while impaired in up to 90 percent of cases if trained properly.

The results of a field sobriety test are admissible in court should an officer use these results as evidence.

The goal of field sobriety tests is to see if you are coordinated, balanced, and able to focus on the tasks necessary for safe driving.  These tests are:

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The walk-and-turn test. In this test, an officer will ask you to take nine steps along a straight line while touching your heel to your toes. You must return to the starting point the same way.

The administering officer is looking for these eight signs of impairment:

  • Turning at odd times
  • Starting before being instructed to do so
  • Inability to stay balanced while listening to the officer’s instructions
  • Stopping due to loss of balance
  • Using arms to stay balanced
  • Taking the wrong number of steps
  • Inability to go heel to toe
  • Not staying on the line

Horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. HGN occurs when your eye involuntarily jerks as you move it side to side. When not impaired, your eyes jerk naturally when looking at high angles using peripheral (side) vision.

Failing this test is known to indicate a high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) or consumption of depressants, barbiturates, or seizure medication. An officer administering this test will flash an object in front of you and ask you to follow it. The test looks for the following:

  • Ability to follow the object
  • Sudden jerking if the eye is looking to the side
  • Whether the jerking occurs at about a 45-degree angle

The HGN test is 77 percent accurate. A person who fails this test can have a BAC of up to 0.1 percent.

One-leg stand test. This test is about 65 percent accurate. An officer asks an individual to lift one foot about six inches off the ground and then count, starting at 1,001, until instructed to put the foot on the ground again. The officer looks for these signs:

  • Using arms to maintain balance
  • Putting the foot down before instructed to do so
  • Hopping to stay steady
  • Swaying to stay balanced

The officer will see if a person does two or more of these things. If a person does, there is a chance that they have BAC of 0.1 percent.

What if You Fail a Field Sobriety Test?

Field sobriety tests are not 100 percent accurate. If you fail these tests, you may be asked to take another type of test to confirm the findings of the field sobriety test. Specifically, you may be asked to take a breathalyzer, urine, or other chemical test.

There are criticisms about field sobriety tests because it is easy for a person to fail them for reasons other than unlawful intoxication.

False positives. Some people naturally have poor coordination. Vertigo or nervousness can also cause people to fail even if they are sober.

Timing of the tests. Taking the test during the day or early evening may be fine for some people. If you are one of the unlucky people who has to take the test past midnight or if you have not slept well, you are more likely to fail.

Health conditions. A recent injury, health condition, or decreased mobility can contribute to failing field sobriety tests.

Failing a field sobriety test may be cause for arrest depending on your state’s law. 

What if You Refuse to Take a Field Sobriety Test?

You are free to refuse a field sobriety test, but there could be legal consequences for this.

This is because driving is not a right. You take and pass a test so you can gain this privilege, and you agree to abide by the laws that govern state and federal roads.

All states have a clause for drivers called implied consent to the following:

  • Having adequate and updated insurance for your vehicle
  • Carrying your driver’s license every time you drive
  • Taking requested field sobriety tests
  • Taking chemical, urine, or blood tests to confirm the presence (or lack of) substances in your body that impair driving

Refusing to take a field sobriety test means you are not keeping your end of the bargain when it comes to upholding the laws that allow you to drive.

Consequences you may face for refusing a field sobriety test include:

  • Penalties that vary by state.
  • Immediate arrest if an officer believes you are driving while impaired.
  • Confiscation of your license (in some states).
  • Suspension of your license for anywhere from six months to a year.
  • Penalties and fees upon recovering your driver’s license.
  • DUI conviction. This can still occur even if you do not take a sobriety test because an officer may testify that you were slurring words or smelled like alcohol. They can recover data from their dash cam that displays your behavior at the time.

States are also coming up with other strategies to make sure drivers do not refuse sobriety tests or to collective evidence even when they do. They may:

Issue immediate warrants. Holidays and large-scale social events, like concerts or festivals, are likely to result in impaired drivers. Local law enforcement officials and judges are often ready to issue immediate warrants to search or obtain tests from people who refuse to take them.

Use the refusal as evidence. Some localities allow officers to use a refusal to take a sobriety test as evidence to secure a DUI conviction.

Increase the severity of penalties. In some states, refusing to test subjects you to penalties that are more severe than if you took the test.

Remember to be respectful. Knowing your rights and treating officers with courtesy can go a long way in ensuring you are treated fairly during sobriety or chemical tests.

Sources

(November 2013) Passing a Field Sobriety Test Difficult – Drunk or Sober. NBC News 29. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.nbc29.com/story/23957865/passing-a-field-sobriety-test-difficult-drunk-or-sober

(June 2016) Could You Pass a Sobriety Test While Sober? Huffington Post Life. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/could-you-pass-a-sobriety_b_10357456

Standardized Field Sobriety Test. AAA DUI Justice. Retrieved August 2019 from https://duijusticelink.aaa.com/issues/detection/standard-field-sobriety-test-sfst-and-admissibility/

(April 2019) Field Sobriety Tests to Assess Drunk Driving. Verywell Mind. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.verywellmind.com/field-sobriety-test-67159

(June 2019) Why You Should Not Refuse a Breathalyzer Test. Verywell Mind. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.verywellmind.com/should-you-refuse-a-breathalyzer-67048

(March 2019) Impaired Driving: Get the Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html

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