Let’s say you’ve just finished dining out with friends and are on your way home, happy to have spent a lovely evening with people you care about, when you see a police car with flashing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror. You immediately get a pit in your stomach because the last thing you need is a speeding ticket or some other type of citation.
Since you’re not sure why the cop is pulling you over, you figure you should comply as swiftly and safely as possible, hoping that your cooperation prompts the officer in question to speak a few words of warning, then tell you you’re free to go without further repercussion. However, if the officer approaches your window and asks you to get out of your car, you can bet that the next request will be for you to take a field sobriety test.
Things you should know ahead of time
Most police officers use one or more of the following tests to determine if they have probable cause to arrest you for suspected drunk driving:
- The test you might be most familiar with, because it is often the first field test a traffic cop might use, is the walk-and-turn test. With your arms outstretched, you must take a certain number of steps along a straight path with the heel of your lead foot touching the toes of your other foot.
- In the one-leg stand test, you start out with your feet together, firmly planted on the ground. Your arms are at your sides while you then lift one leg approximately six inches off the ground and stay that way for at least 30 seconds.
- Another type of field sobriety test is the finger count. In this test, the officer will observe your ability, or lack thereof, to point to each of your fingers while counting out loud in succession.
- In the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the officer is checking to see whether your eyeballs jerk erratically before you have reached your maximum peripheral vision point while tracking an object horizontally or vertically without turning your head.
Talk about stressful! The fact that a cop pulled you over may be enough to raise your blood pressure. A request to perform one or more of these field sobriety tests can cause your stress level to soar, whether or not you actually imbibed any alcohol before driving. Speaking of which, just because you have not consumed alcohol does not necessarily mean the officer will not suspect you of drunk driving.
Know your rights and how to protect them
The most critical factor to know about field sobriety tests is that you are not legally obligated to take them. You can refuse, and doing so incurs no legal or administrative penalty of any kind. Police cannot force you to take a field sobriety test, nor are they supposed to arrest you without probable cause. You also have the right to request legal representation when a police officer detains you at the side of the road.