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How reliable are field sobriety tests?

Getting pulled over by a police officer after a night out is a nerve-racking experience. Following a brief questioning, the officer will ask you to complete a few tests if they suspect intoxication. You may wonder whether you should consent to the tests and if it will be used against you.

Sobriety tests typically begin with field sobriety tests, conducted roadside. Following these results, further tests could follow, including a Breathalyzer test. While you do have the right to refuse such tests, doing so may be consequential.

What are field sobriety tests?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) standardized a three-part field sobriety test, which officers can request drivers to complete. The three parts include:

  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN). This test involves the officer moving an object to test your line of vision. The involuntary jerking of the eye is typically much more distinct when intoxicated.
  • Walk and Turn. One of the more well-known tests, this involves walking nine steps along a straight line before turning and walking back in the same manner.
  • One-Leg Stand. As the name suggests, this involves standing on one leg for a 30-second period. Any show of unbalance can be proof of intoxication.

Depending on the situation, the officer may ask you to complete additional tests, such as reciting the alphabet or counting backwards.

The reliability of field sobriety tests

Are field sobriety tests reliable? Many argue that even sober individuals may struggle to adequately complete these tests. Additionally, these standardized tests fail to account for other conditions that may impair the results. Existing mental or physical conditions, fatigue or even nerves could all contribute to a failed field sobriety test.

When all three tests are administered, they are believed to have an accuracy rate of over 80 percent. You do have the right to refuse such tests. However, doing so could either prompt the officer to arrest you or ask you to take a Breathalyzer test. Refusing any chemical test in North Carolina can result in the automatic revocation of your driver’s license, among other penalties, due to the state’s implied consent law.

Refusing any test when pulled over by an officer can have consequences. Regardless of the completion of sobriety tests, an attorney can provide a strong defense after a DWI arrest.

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