A Look at Field Sobriety Tests Used by New Jersey Patrolmen During DWI-related Traffic Stops

It’s something that we get asked numerous times every year: What is it like to be stopped for drunk driving and how can I be prepared for such an event? As New Jersey DWI defense lawyers the first thing were are apt to say would be don’t let yourself get into that type of situation to start with. Considering the potential monetary penalties for DWI, not to mention the associated social stigma of an arrest, much less a conviction, this is probably the most reasonable advice anyone could give.

But as for what happens during a DWI stop, it’s first important to remember that the police cannot pull a motorist over simply on the “hunch” that the driver is intoxicated or has had too much to drink. New Jersey law requires that a patrolman observe some kind of other traffic offense or violation (improper turn, speeding, or even a broken headlamp).

Many officers will describe the so-called tell-tail signs that indicate that a driver is drunk behind the wheel. These may include tailgating another vehicle or swerving in and out of a lane of travel. Others may say that driving too slowly, having the headlamps turned off in the darkness or driving constantly with their high beams on are good indicators of a drunken driver.

While many “signs” are not necessarily actionable by an officer, it does certainly draw attention to that motorists and his vehicle. But once a policeman has observed an actual traffic violation, then it is up to that officer to carry out a traffic stop.

Once on the roadside — or even at a sobriety checkpoint — if the patrolman notices any signs or clues that the driver has been drinking, he may ask the suspect certain questions in order to illicit a response and better determine that individuals’s physical states. If a police officer suspects a driver of being under the influence of beer, wine or hard liquor, he or she may request the motorist to exit their vehicle and perform one or more of the standardized field sobriety tests.

Several of the typical field sobriety tests include a “single-leg stand test,” a “walk and turn” test, as well as the “horizontal eye nystagmus” test. This last one, as many officers will tell you, is one of the more reliable test for sobriety. This test involves identifying sometimes jerky or involuntary eye motion exhibited by individuals who may have a high blood-alcohol concentration (BAC).

The nystagmus test can show that a person has a difficult time smoothly following an object with their eyes. According to officers who have used this test, it is difficult if not impossible to fake one’s way through this kind of test; in fact, some say that it is the only field sobriety test that will identify even a high-functioning alcoholic as being drunk.

The walk-and-turn test requires the subject to count each of the nine steps out and another none back following a turn. According to some police professionals this test, as well as the single-leg stand test, evaluates a subject’s ability to stay in balance, as well as gauging the individual’s willingness and ability to follow directions.

Once an officer has satisfied himself that a driver is impaired through the use of these basic physical tests, a breathalyzer test is most likely the next step to make a quantitative determination of that person’s level of inebriation. Depending on the results of the breath or blood test for BAC level, the next step can be formal charges and the setting of a court date.