Challenging DUI Field Sobriety Tests in Syracuse

May 13, 2022


When a driver is pulled over by the police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), they are often asked to submit to standardized field sobriety tests. These tests are physical acts which are designed to test the driver’s coordination for the purpose of determining intoxication. These tests are the one-leg stand, walk and turn, and the horizontal gaze nystagmus.

Field sobriety tests are generally believed to reveal impaired ability in such things as coordination, reaction time, and mental functioning. Many DWI defendants do not know that they are not required to submit to these tests. Although New York has an implied consent statute (New York Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1194(2)), under which a driver is deemed to have given their consent to a “chemical test” for the purpose of determining intoxication, field sobriety tests are not chemical tests.” In New York, as in many other states, there is no common law, nor statutory requirement to perform field sobriety tests. The police officer who pulls over a motorist suspected of committing a DWI offense has no statutory requirement to inform the driver that they may refuse to perform these tests. However, DWI defendants should be aware that a refusal to perform a field sobriety test may be admissible against them at their DWI trial.

Police officer conducting sobriety test for drunk driver

Challenging the results of field sobriety tests

In a DWI trial, the prosecutor may point out those parts of the standardized field sobriety tests that a defendant failed. To challenge the evidence of a failed sobriety test, a DWI defense attorney may point out the areas of the test which the defendant performed satisfactorily.

Standardized field sobriety tests may be challenged on the grounds that they are determined to measure “impairment” but they may not be accurate in estimating a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC). Field sobriety tests generally cannot to be used to estimate specific BAC level of a defendant. A DWI defense attorney may argue that that use of tests as indirect evidence of a defendant’s impairment through the estimate of their BAC should not be admissible at trial.

Challenging Each Test

A DWI defense attorney may also challenge the basis for the results of a horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. The HGN test must be administered according to prescribed methods. Therefore, if the arresting officer in the case was not properly trained in administering the HGN test, the results may not be admissible at trial. Nystagmus refers to an involuntary jerking of the eye as it follows a smoothly moving stimulus, such as a pencil or penlight. The eyes of an unimpaired person will follow the stimulus smoothly. However, when a person is impaired by alcohol, the jerking of the eye is larger, more pronounced, and is easily observable by a police officer.

Police officer conducting sobriety test

There have been many challenges to the reliability of the HGN test. A person’s age has been found to have a considerable effect on their ability to smoothly track an object on the HGN test. It has been proven that younger people are able to maintain smooth pursuit of a stimulus but older people usually experience more eye jerking on the HGN test. It has also been shown that psychiatric conditions may affect a person’s performance on the HGN test. Many people with psychosis and schizophrenia may show impairment in their ability to smoothly track a stimulus; this is believed to be the result of lithium treatment. Another study has shown that smoking even one cigarette can produce Nystagmus.

The defendant’s walk-and-turn test results may also be challenged by a DWI defense attorney. It is crucial that the walk-and-turn test be administered properly for the results to be accurate. Some police officers do not know that the test must be performed on a designated straight line and should be conducted on a reasonably dry, hard, level, non-slippery surface. Studies have shown that people over 65 years of age and who have back, leg or inner ear problems have difficulty performing this test. According to rules of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, police officers giving the walk-and-turn test are not only required to explain the test, but they are also required to demonstrate the test for the DWI suspect. A DWI defense attorney may seek to obtain videotaped evidence to make sure that the arresting officer in the case followed proper procedure when administering the walk-and-turn test.

If a DWI defendant has a disability, their DWI defense attorney may challenge the results on a standardized field sobriety test based on this fact. If a defendant has a disability, under the American with Disabilities Act, the police officer administering the tests is required to make reasonable accommodations, such as offering different tests that the motorist might reasonably be expected to pass if they were not disabled.

For example, in the case of Delano-Pyle v. Victoria County, Texas, a hearing impaired driver was asked to undergo field sobriety testing after being involved in a car accident. Although the driver was able to understand some of the demonstrations by the police officer involved, his inability to read lips made it impossible to understand what was required of him. After failing the test, the driver was arrested and jailed for two days, until a blood test came back demonstrating that he was not impaired. The court of appeals awarded the driver a $230,000 judgment on his discrimination claim against the county.

The attorneys with the DWI Team are experienced in handling DWI cases. If you need a lawyer who can help you obtain the best possible outcome in your DWI case, call the DWI Team, the areas most experienced team of DWI attorneys ever assembled. Call today at 1-800-394-8326 and feel less stress tomorrow.

DISCLAIMER: The exclusive purpose of this article is educational and it is not intended as either legal advice or a general solution to any specific legal problem.  Corporate offices for The DWI Team are located at 231 Walton Street, Syracuse, New York 13202; Telephone No.: 1-800-394-8326  Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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