Field Sobriety Tests in New Jersey

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides standardized field sobriety testing procedures for police officers to use on a driver thought to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A field sobriety test is comprised of multiple acts to help a police officer determine whether an individual is physically and mentally impaired. A police officer will first conduct a “horizontal gaze nystagmus test.” For this test, the individual will be instructed to stand with his or her feet together. The police officer will move a stimulus back and forth, while the driver follows the stimulus with his or her eyes only. The act must be performed without moving your head. Failure to keep your head still, or improperly move your eyes, may result in a failed “horizontal gaze nystagmus test.”

After the “horizontal gaze nystagmus test,” a police officer will conduct a walk and turn test. An individual will be asked to put one foot on a straight line, and place the other foot directly in front of the back one. The heel of the front foot must be constantly touching the toes of the back foot to complete the task successfully. The test consists of 9 heel-to-toe steps down the line, and an additional 9 heel-to-toe steps back to the starting point. While completing the test, the individual must look at his or her feet and count each step out loud. An individual may fail this test for a number of reasons, including missing heel-to-toe, stepping off the line, using arms to balance, or starting before the officer instructs the individual to begin. Field sobriety tests are notoriously subjective, meaning a police officer can fail an individual for a variety of reasons.

Following the walk and turn test, an individual will be instructed to complete a one-leg stand test. For this test, a police officer will ask the individual to stand with his or her feet together. While standing feet together, the individual will be instructed to raise one leg about a foot off the ground and count, “1,001, 1,002, 1,003, 1,004,” and so on. Throughout the course of this test, the individual must keep their hands at their side, without using them to balance. A police officer will look for several factors when determining whether an individual has passed this test. For example, a police officer may fail an individual if they use their arms for balance, hop while balancing on one foot, or put one foot down.

Depending on the police officer, an individual may be asked to complete several other tests in addition to the ones required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Some common tests include placing your finger on your nose, reciting the ABC’s, or counting forwards or backward. Field sobriety tests are used a circumstantial evidence to establish whether an individual has been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. There are several reasons an individual may not be able to complete a field sobriety test for reasons unrelated to intoxication. For example, a disability may prevent an individual from completing any of the tests. In such a case, an individual should inform the police officer of the disability or condition and the officer will take note of it within the report.

While there is a specific law requiring drivers to submit to breath tests, there is no law requiring performance of a field sobriety tests. Because field sobriety tests are considered difficult to pass even for individuals who are sober, it may be best to politely refuse the test before the Breathalyzer results come back. Many police officers do not inform drivers of this fact and as a result, most drivers submit to the tests. Although a driver has a right to refuse the field sobriety tests, that refusal may later come back to hurt the driver. A judge may view a refusal as an implied admission of intoxication.