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Understanding field sobriety tests in Indiana

On Behalf of | Oct 13, 2021 | Criminal Defense

If you’ve ever driven by a traffic stop and seen a driver performing an odd-looking series of movements, you were probably witnessing a field sobriety test (FST). These are a group of (usually three) tests designed to measure a person’s coordination and ability to follow directions.

Their overall goal is to help police officers determine if the driver may be impaired by alcohol or drugs. More specifically, their goal is usually to give police officers probable cause to require a suspected impaired driver to take a chemical test (a test of their breath, blood or urine). In this post, we’ll discuss how these tests are used in Indiana.

What are the most common tests?

There are three FSTs considered standard across the country. They include:

The walk-and-turn test: A suspect walks heel to toe in a straight line, turns around and comes back the other way. It measures balance and ability to follow instructions.

The one-leg stand: A suspect is instructed to stand on one foot while lifting the other foot several inches off the ground. It measures balance.

The horizontal gaze nystagmus: A suspect is told to follow a moving object (a pen or the officer’s finger) with their eyes as it moves from side to side. The officer looks for excessive eye jerking when moving to the extremes of peripheral vision (a natural reaction that becomes more pronounced when intoxicated).

Other tests may be used, but these three are most common because they have been endorsed as reliable by agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Do these tests always reveal intoxication?

FSTs are controversial because someone could fail while completely sober or pass while very intoxicated. It depends on the coordination of the person and their overall physical health. Obesity, arthritis and other medical conditions can make it much harder to balance or stand on one leg, even when sober. Some high-tolerance drinkers are able to pass FSTs even when they are well above the legal limit.

Moreover, the police officer interprets the results. If an officer already suspects you are drunk, he may fail you in order to require chemical testing.

Are there penalties for test refusal?

In Indiana, you face no legal penalties for refusing to take field sobriety tests. That being said, an officer could arrest you anyway on suspicion of drunk driving. And if you are later ordered to take a chemical test, you will face penalties (including license suspension) for refusing.

Hopefully, the information above has given you a better understanding of FSTs and your rights during an OWI stop in Indiana. If you’ve been arrested, you can best protect your rights by seeking the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.