New Jersey Police recently charged a defendant dressed in an elf costume with driving while intoxicated and related crimes. The national media have had a field day with police photos of the costumed young man being subjected to field sobriety tests. But our Morristown readers may have found that the footage raises some questions. In particular, just what is a field sobriety test?
Police in Morris County and elsewhere typically conduct field sobriety tests when they’ve stopped a driver and suspect intoxication. They ask the suspect to perform a number of activities, during which they look for signs of impairment. Evidence of impairment (like poor balance or coordination, or inability to concentrate) may be cited by an officer as probable cause to arrest a defendant and file drunk driving charges.
There are a number of common conceptions when it comes to field sobriety tests. Saying the alphabet or counting backwards, counting how many fingers an officer is holding up, and touching one’s nose while keeping one’s eyes closed are just a few. But in fact, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s standard test consists of three parts:
- Looking for signs of impairment in a suspect’s eyes, including exaggerated jerking movements when gazing to the side. This test is called the horizontal gaze nystagmus.
- Asking the suspect to take nine heel-to-toe steps in a straight line, turn and repeat along the same line.
- Asking the suspect to count for 30 seconds while standing on one foot, with the other lifted about six inches in the air.
An NHTSA study from over 15 years ago claimed that this test could detect subjects impaired by alcohol in over 90 percent of cases.
Defendants facing drunk driving charges, however, have the right to challenge field sobriety tests in court. A criminal defense professional will be able to highlight the subjective nature of the test and question whether an officer was acting appropriately in the administration of the tests as well as the conclusions drawn from them.
It’s not necessary, remember, for the defense to prove that a defendant was sober. It is only necessary to establish reasonable doubt as to his or her guilt.