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How Field Sobriety Tests Can Affect Your Case

Posted on December 31, 2021 in

During a traffic stop involving a driver who is suspected of operating under the influence (OUI) in Massachusetts, a law enforcement officer can rely on two tests of the driver’s sobriety: a chemical test and a field sobriety test. The results of either could be used to build an OUI case against the driver in the criminal courts. Learning more about field sobriety tests – including what to do if you are asked to take one – can help you protect yourself if you’re facing an OUI arrest.

What Is a Field Sobriety Test?

A field sobriety test is normally a series of tests that are observed by a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop to ascertain whether the driver is under the influence of an impairing substance. There are different types of field sobriety tests used to assess the driver’s muscle control, balance, vision and ability to obey commands. The three most common tests used are:

  1. The horizontal gaze nystagmus test. This tests to see if the driver can follow an object with his or her eyes.
  2. The one-leg stand test. This tests whether the driver can balance on one leg for 30 seconds.
  3. The walk-and-turn test. This tests the driver’s ability to walk in a straight line.

The officer will observe the driver performing these tests. The tests will also be recorded by the officer’s dashcam or body cam, in most cases. An officer can make an arrest for an alleged OUI based on his or her observations of the field sobriety test alone – with or without evidence from a chemical test.

Field Sobriety Test vs. Breathalyzer

It is important to note that a field sobriety test is not the same as a chemical drug or alcohol test, such as a breathalyzer or urine or blood test. In Massachusetts, like most states, drivers give their implied consent to breath tests when they receive their driver’s licenses. This means that you are legally obligated to consent to a request for a breathalyzer test during a traffic stop. 

While you can refuse a breathalyzer test – and doing so may help your OUI case, depending on the circumstances – this will result in automatic and immediate penalties. Refusing a breathalyzer in Massachusetts results in the suspension of your driver’s license for 180 days (or longer, if this is not your first time refusing). Consult with a Middlesex County OUI defense attorney to find out if you should refuse a breathalyzer test.

How Are Field Sobriety Tests Used in OUI Cases?

If a field sobriety test is carried out during an OUI arrest, it can be used during a criminal trial against the driver. If the officer believes that the driver failed the field sobriety test because he or she was impaired by drugs or alcohol, the prosecutor could use the failed test as evidence supporting an OUI conviction. Paired with the officer’s testimony describing the events of the arrest, or camera footage of the test being performed, a failed field sobriety test could be enough evidence to convict a driver of operating under the influence.

What Should You Do When Asked to Take a Field Sobriety Test?

Field sobriety tests are a controversial subject in drunk driving cases. They are inaccurate and subjective tests that can be failed by a driver for a variety of reasons that are not related to intoxication, such as a physical condition or ailment that impedes the driver’s balance or ability to walk in a straight line. For this reason – along with the fact that drivers are not legally required to participate in field sobriety tests – it is often recommended to politely decline to take this test if asked by an officer during a traffic stop.

If you have been arrested for an alleged OUI in Massachusetts, contact a criminal defense lawyer at Spring & Spring for advice. We can help you with the consequences of a field sobriety test, whether you took it and passed, took it and failed, or refused to participate.