Drunk driving and driving under the influence (DUI) are not taken lightly. Getting behind the wheel while impaired is a dangerous choice with heavy consequences. A DUI conviction can mean jail time, huge fines, and driver's license suspension, at a minimum. Depending on your local statutes, you may also see the terms "driving while intoxicated" (DWI), "operating under the influence" (OUI), or "operating while intoxicated" (OWI).
When a police officer pulls you over on suspicion of DUI, what are your rights? Can you refuse to cooperate with field sobriety tests?
What Are Field Sobriety Tests?
A police officer must reasonably suspect that you are operating a vehicle while intoxicated before they can pull you over. A DUI checkpoint may stop you without a reasonable suspicion of intoxication if your state allows these checkpoints.
There are several field sobriety tests (FST) an officer may ask you to perform to determine your level of impairment. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) endorses three standardized field sobriety tests. They are:
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test (HGN)
The HGN test is a tool for law enforcement officers to determine if you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This test involves the officer having you cover one eye and focus on an object, such as a pen, a finger, or a flashlight. Then you must follow it with your eye as the officer moves it back and forth. The same test gets repeated with your other eye.
The officer is watching for nystagmus, or jerky eye movements. Are you able to follow the object smoothly? At what point do the jerky eye movements begin? This test can help to detect both drug and alcohol intoxication. An experienced officer may even estimate your level of intoxication based on your eye movements.
The walk-and-turn test involves having you walk for nine steps, heel to toe, in a straight line. Then you turn and repeat the steps. While you are walking, the officer will look for the following:
- Inability to maintain balance
- Ability to follow directions
- Having to stop to regain balance
- Making the correct number of steps
- Difficulty making the turn
- Inability to keep a straight line or touch heel to toe
One-Leg Stand Test (OLS)
This test involves lifting one leg at least 6 inches off the ground. You must hold that stance for 30 seconds. The officer may also ask you to count by a certain number of increments or from a specific number, such as 1,001. The officer will watch for:
- Inability to maintain balance
- Putting your foot down before 30 seconds is up
- The need to use arms to balance
Refusing Field Sobriety Tests
You are not required to take these tests. Before a DUI arrest, you can say no. A few states may impose penalties for refusing field sobriety tests. These serve as an investigative aid to the police officer. If you're arrested, the results are evidence against you. But the court may consider your refusal to take them, as well.
FSTs are not infallible. They can be difficult even when you are sober. Certain medical conditions can mimic the effects of intoxication in these tests. For example, wearing contact lenses can influence the HGN test. Your age or an injury may make performing the WAT and OLS tests difficult. An adverse diabetic reaction may make you seem lethargic, shaky, and unable to follow instructions.
Remember that this may not stop the officer from arresting you for a DUI if they believe there is enough probable cause that you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Can I Refuse Chemical Tests?
Some police officers, such as in New York, may ask you to submit a preliminary alcohol screening (PAS), such as a Breathalyzer test, before field sobriety tests during a traffic stop. Law enforcement may wait until you are at the police station to perform the field sobriety tests. Breathalyzer tests are often used first because there are immediate consequences for refusing them.
A Breathalyzer test measures your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). You face arrest if your test results show an illegal amount of alcohol in your system. Law enforcement will ask you to submit to further testing, called chemical tests, to determine your intoxication level.
Field sobriety tests are different from chemical tests. This is an important distinction.
While you can refuse to take a breath test and other chemical tests, such as blood tests and urine tests, there are serious consequences for not complying. Your license could be automatically revoked, and your insurance rates could drastically increase. You may still face arrest and other DUI penalties if convicted.
All states have implied consent laws requiring you to submit to chemical testing if an officer asks. This is a condition of obtaining your driver's license. Keep in mind that if you take your case to trial, the prosecutor may offer the fact that you refused a chemical test into evidence.
Questions About Refusing to Take a Field Sobriety Test? Ask a DUI Lawyer
Every state has its own DUI laws. Navigating them can be difficult. If you face a DUI charge, you should speak with a local DUI/DWI lawyer. A qualified DUI defense attorney can advise you about your DUI case and any legal or administrative consequences of a plea or conviction.