During most any traffic stop that appears to the officer in charge to involve drinking and driving, the motorist will likely be asked to perform a one or more of the standardized field sobriety tests (FSTs) as prescribed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). For those unfamiliar with these tests, they are comprised of a number of simple physical tasks — such as walking a straight line heel-to-toe or standing on one leg for 30 seconds — which police use to gauge a person’s level of impairment from drugs or alcohol.
Historically, law enforcement agencies have used these tests coupled with other observed symptoms of drunkenness — such as weaving in one’s lane — and the officer’s professional opinion to determine guilt and justify the arrest of a motorist for driving while intoxicated. Here in New Jersey, as well as the rest of the country, a patrolman must correctly administer the FSTs as approved by the NHTSA in a standardized manner in order to obtain a validated indicator of impairment and establish probable cause for a DWI-DUI arrest.
As common as the FSTs are in the daily duties of police officers all across the Garden State, they nonetheless represent one of the more controversial aspects of a drunk driving stop. In an effort to lend more credibility to these tests, the NHTSA developed a model training system for police officers and published numerous training manuals regarding the use and administration of FSTs. Even though the results of these test may be held up by the prosecution as proof of inebriation on the part of a driver, even experts in the field of DWI don’t agree on the effectiveness of FSTs.
In fact, the NHTSA ran its own study and determined that, for example, the “walk-and-turn” test was only 68 percent accurate in determining impairment. Even the “one-leg stand” test was found, in the NHTSA study, to be just 65 percent accurate when administered to people within the study parameters (which did not include individuals with medical conditions, physical injuries, those 65 years of age or older, and people who were 50 or more pounds overweight).
As one might expect, there are various issues which a qualified drunk driving defense attorney may raise in court regarding the administration and interpretation of FSTs. Here at the law offices of Jonathan F. Marshall, I and my legal team have a vast amount of experience in addressing these and other DWI and drug DUI-related issues. A fairly common problem is that patrolmen often fail to administer the tests correctly, which essentially destroys the evidentiary value of the tests.
By pointing to a failure of proper test administration, it is possible to introduce enough doubt as to the validity of any or all of the FSTs that a drunk driving defendant performed even if he or she failed all of them. We will say that it is sometimes not the best idea to push one’s luck on the roadside and let a skilled professional handle the defense in a courtroom. Take the news story of a woman involved in single-vehicle crash last March.
According to news stories, a New Jersey woman was arrested in Hoboken on a Tuesday evening after her vehicle reportedly struck some parked cars and then flipped on its side around midnight. The 26-year-old driver told police at the scene that she had consumed no more than two beers earlier that night and was apparently very upset when she failed two FSTs that officers had her perform. In fact, after being formally arrested, she reportedly insisted that the police have her do two more, different FSTs so she could prove she was not drunk.
Unfortunately for this young woman, she also failed the other two tests, after which she was taken to the Hudson County Sheriff’s headquarters. Based on police reports, while in custody the driver provided a breath sample that indicated a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.12 percent at around 2am.
Harrison woman charged with DWI insists on re-taking sobriety test, cops say; NJ.com; March 28, 2013