Why You Should Never Take a Texas Field Sobriety Test

January 7, 2024 | By Fulgham Hampton Criminal Defense Attorneys
Why You Should Never Take a Texas Field Sobriety Test
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If the police pull you over and ask you to take a field sobriety test, you need to understand the implications of your actions and the importance of seeking legal advice.

Sometimes, refusing a field sobriety test is in your best interest. If officers arrest you on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), always contact a Fort Worth DWI defense attorney in Texas immediately.

Table of Contents

What Is a Sobriety Test?

Why You Should Never Take a Texas Field Sobriety Test

In Texas, field sobriety tests are a tool used by law enforcement to assess whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While these tests aim to gauge impairment, they are imperfect and can be fraught with complications.

These tests typically involve a series of physical and cognitive exercises. The physical tests might include standing on one leg, walking in a straight line, and then turning, and the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, where the officer observes the movement of your eyes as you follow a moving object like a pen or flashlight.

The premise is that certain behaviors or difficulties in performing these tasks can indicate impairment.

However, the reliability of these tests is a subject of ongoing debate. One of the primary concerns is the subjective nature of how these tests are administered and interpreted.

Different officers may have different thresholds for what they consider as signs of impairment. For instance, a slight stumble or misstep, which can be due to nervousness or a physical condition unrelated to alcohol consumption, might be interpreted as a sign of impairment.

Environmental and personal factors can also heavily influence performance on these tests. Uneven road surfaces, poor lighting, weather conditions, or even the driver's footwear can impact their ability to complete tasks successfully.

Medical conditions are another significant factor that can impact the results of field sobriety tests. Conditions such as inner ear problems, neurological disorders, or even temporary ailments like fatigue or low blood sugar can hinder a person's ability to complete the tests successfully.

Age and physical fitness also play a role; older individuals or those with physical impairments might find it challenging to perform tasks that require balance and coordination, regardless of their sobriety.

The cognitive aspect of the tests also carries its own set of issues. Under the stress of a police stop, many people find it challenging to focus and follow instructions accurately, which can unfairly skew the test results.

Given these variabilities and the potential for misinterpretation, the results of field sobriety tests can be unreliable indicators of impairment. This unreliability can lead to unwarranted legal complications for the individual subjected to the test.

In these complex and nuanced situations, you need guidance from a lawyer. A lawyer can scrutinize the circumstances under which officers administered the field sobriety tests, challenge their validity, and provide a strong defense against any charges based on questionable test results.

Potential Self-Incrimination

The issue of potential self-incrimination during field sobriety tests is a significant concern that drivers in Texas should know. These tests, designed to gauge impairment, can become a source of evidence used against you in legal proceedings.

When you participate in a field sobriety test, every action, word, and response is subject to scrutiny and an indication of impairment. This includes not just your performance in physical tasks but also your speech, demeanor, and even casual remarks.

For instance, an offhand comment about where you were or how much you've had to drink, made in an attempt to be cooperative or conversational, can be used to build a case against you.

The physical component of the test, which might involve tasks like standing on one leg or walking in a straight line, is equally filled with risks for self-incrimination. 

These tests are challenging under the best of circumstances, and under the stress of a police stop, even sober people can falter. Officers might claim that any slight stumble, inability to balance, or difficulty following instructions were signs of impairment. Furthermore, any physical impairments or medical conditions that affect your performance can be misinterpreted as intoxication.

The subjective nature of these tests means that the officer's interpretation plays a critical role in the outcome. What one person might recognize as nervousness or a physical limitation by one person can be considered impairment by the police.

This subjectivity can lead to inaccurate conclusions about your state and result in charges that may not accurately reflect the situation.

Understand your rights in these situations. You have the right to remain silent, which means you are not obligated to answer potentially incriminating questions. 

You also have the right to an attorney, and it is often advisable to exercise these rights and seek legal counsel before making any statements or agreeing to any tests.

Politely declining a field sobriety test is within your rights and one you might wish to exercise, with a lawyer’s advice, especially considering the potential for these tests to lead to self-incrimination.

In cases where field sobriety tests have led to charges, having a lawyer becomes essential. A lawyer can analyze the circumstances of the test and assess your actions and words during the test. They can challenge any evidence the police obtained in a manner that infringes on your rights or the proper legal procedures.

Statistical Unreliability of FSTs

Field sobriety tests are a common tool by law enforcement to assess a driver's potential intoxication, but their accuracy and reliability have been subjects of debate. Here's an overview based on various studies

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Studies

The NHTSA funded several studies to validate a three-test battery comprising the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), Walk and Turn (WAT), and One Leg Stand (OLS) tests, collectively known as the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. These studies aimed to standardize the administration and interpretation of these tests under consistent conditions across different locations​​.

The first validation study in Colorado reported 93 percent accuracy in arrest decisions using the three-test battery. However, it's important to note the potential biases in this study, such as the selection of participants and the officers' prior knowledge of why the drivers were stopped. The study's participant pool was also not representative, with most male participants and high mean BAC level of 0.156 percent.​​

A subsequent study in Florida in 1997 claimed 88 percent accuracy in arrest/no arrest decisions and 95 percent in arrest decisions. However, this study also had a high mean BAC of 0.156 percent, and 80 percent of the subjects were over the legal limit. The study showed that those falsely arrested often exhibited clues on the SFSTs​​.

One study reported 91 percent accuracy for BACs over 0.08 percent and 80 percent for BACs between 0.04 percent and 0.08 percent. However, this study also faced issues with periodic monitoring and supervision, leading to concerns about the validity of the results​​.

Clemson University Study by Dr. Spurgeon Cole

Dr. Cole's 1994 study aimed to remove outside influences like driving patterns when evaluating the effectiveness of FSTs. In this study, 21 individuals with a BAC of 0.00 percent were on video completing six common field sobriety tests. 

When 14 police officers viewed the video, 46 of the decisions concluded that the individuals were too drunk to drive, highlighting the potential for false positives​​.

Statistical Analysis of Individual Tests

The accuracy of individual field sobriety tests varies. The HGN test is the most accurate, with about 88 percent accuracy. The Walk-and-Turn test has an accuracy of about 79 percent, and the One-Legged Stand test is around 83 percent accurate. 

These figures suggest that these tests do not definitively prove intoxication​​. Another perspective highlights that the HGN test by itself is 77 percent accurate, the Walk-and-Turn test is 68 percent accurate, and the One-Legged Stand test is 65 percent accurate​​.

While field sobriety tests might be indicators of impairment, their reliability and accuracy are not absolute. Studies have shown varying degrees of accuracy and concerns about the potential for false positives, the influence of external factors, and the subjective nature of these tests.

This variability in test accuracy underscores the importance of critical analysis and legal guidance when these tests are evidence in DUI or DWI cases.

The Role of a Lawyer in Field Sobriety Test Situations

The Role of a Lawyer in Field Sobriety Test Situations

When confronted with a field sobriety test in Texas, contacting a lawyer should be your immediate course of action.

A lawyer can help with the steps after such a test, especially if it leads to DWI charges. Their understanding of the law is instrumental in protecting your rights and challenging irregularities in field sobriety tests.

A lawyer first examines the specifics of your situation - the context of the stop, how the officer conducted field sobriety tests, and your general interactions with law enforcement. This thorough review allows them to identify any procedural errors or violations of your rights.

For instance, if the officer did not have a valid reason to stop you or conducted the field sobriety tests violating legal standards, these can be critical factors in your defense.

Also, a lawyer can assess whether external factors such as medical conditions, environmental conditions, or even how the officer gave instructions might have affected your test performance.

They understand that these tests are imperfect and can involve various non-alcohol-related factors. By bringing these elements to light, a lawyer can challenge the validity of the test results as a true indicator of impairment.n

Beyond assessing the situation, a lawyer is your advocate and representative throughout the legal process. This role includes advising you on legal strategy and actively working on your behalf in legal proceedings.

Your defense lawyer can challenge the field sobriety test results in court. They can argue against the reliability of the test results, questioning the officer's interpretation and the subjective nature of the tests. Improper testing can become key points in your defense.

A lawyer's representation extends to negotiating with prosecutors, potentially leading to a dismissal or reduction of charges. They understand the nuances of the law and can use this knowledge to seek the most favorable outcome possible. For instance, if a lawyer can demonstrate that the field sobriety test results are unreliable or that the stop was unjustified, it can weaken the prosecution's case.

A lawyer also provides crucial legal guidance, helping you understand the charges against you, the possible outcomes, and the best course of action. They can advise you on negotiating a plea or proceeding to trial based on carefully evaluating your case's specifics.

How to Politely Decline a Field Sobriety Test and Contact a Lawyer

If the police stop you in Texas and ask you to perform a field sobriety test, it's important to know how to respond. First, remain calm and respectful throughout the interaction.

Politely decline to take the test by saying something like, "Officer, I understand you are doing your job, but I choose not to perform the field sobriety tests." It's best to avoid confrontational language or behavior.

After declining the test, it's advisable to contact a lawyer immediately. You can say, "I want to exercise my right to speak with a lawyer before proceeding with any tests or questions." Remember, you have the right to legal counsel, and contacting a lawyer at this stage can provide crucial guidance and help protect your rights.

Having a lawyer's contact information beforehand can be beneficial in such situations. If you don't have a specific lawyer in mind, request to make a call to a family member or friend who can help get in touch with legal assistance. Your lawyer can then advise you on the next steps and represent your interests.

Contact a Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer

Facing a field sobriety test in Texas can be a scary experience, but knowing your rights and the importance of legal representation can make all the difference. If you're ever in such a situation, remember that you have the right to seek legal advice.

Contacting a criminal defense lawyer immediately can help protect your rights and provide the guidance you need to navigate the legal system.

About the Author:

Brandon Fulgham has an in-depth understanding of both Texas law and Texans themselves. Before practicing law here, he received his undergraduate degree from TCU, and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston. After graduation, he worked in District Attorneys’ offices as a prosecutor, building cases designed to put people behind bars. Now, he uses that knowledge to protect the rights of people in and around Fort Worth, making sure they receive the strongest possible defense when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. He has been recognized for his work by The National Trial Lawyers, Fort Worth Magazine, and others.

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