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All About Field Sobriety Tests

October 9, 2020

Because Arizona has some of the most notoriously stringent DUI penalties in the nation, many people believe that there isn’t much you can do to fight back against a DUI conviction. Of course, your best defense against a DUI is to avoid drinking and driving at all. However, you may be pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence even if you’re completely sober. You might simply find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. In addition, many DUI charges are built on evidence that’s fundamentally flawed: Field sobriety tests. 

If you’ve ever seen a DUI arrest portrayed on television, you might be somewhat familiar with field sobriety tests (FSTs). While these tests aren’t quite as ridiculous as they’re sometimes portrayed—don’t worry, nobody is going to make you say the alphabet backwards—they aren’t entirely reliable either. Still, that doesn’t stop arresting officers from presenting the results of field sobriety tests in court. And unfortunately, the results often aren’t flattering. By arming yourself with better knowledge of FSTs and your rights during a traffic stop, you can ensure that this flawed source of evidence isn’t used against you in your DUI case. 

How do field sobriety tests work?

The goal of a field sobriety test is to help an officer determine if you are under the influence of alcohol by observing how well you complete a series of common tests, such as walking down the sidewalk or standing on one leg. However, in the 21st century we have plenty of reliable, scientific ways to determine if an individual has been drinking. That’s why police will also administer a breathalyzer or a blood test to measure your BAC after a DUI traffic stop. In reality the goal of FSTs isn’t to definitively assess whether you’ve been drinking. Rather, they’re designed to provide police officers with additional evidence to build a case against you as you’re charged with a crime. 

The fact is that many people fail field sobriety tests despite being unimpaired. That’s because whether you pass is solely at the discretion of the officer. There’s also no consideration to your individual physical or cognitive abilities. If, for example, you have a bad knee, you may not have an easy time walking a straight line. 

Am I allowed to refuse a field sobriety test?

It may sound scary to refuse the request of a police officer, but you should remember that you have no legal obligation to complete an FST. It is possible that you will be arrested upon refusal to complete any part of a field sobriety test but remember that an arrest is not the same as a conviction. By reducing the opportunity of the police to gather evidence against you, you will only strengthen your ability to build a solid defense for the courtroom. Upon arrest, you will be given a chemical test such as a breathalyzer or blood test to determine if you were, in fact, intoxicated behind the wheel.  

What am I required to do at a traffic stop? 

While you can legally refuse a field sobriety test, there are still some requests you must comply with when you’re pulled over. Arizona law requires that you provide your name, driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance at a traffic stop. You do not have to answer any questions. If you are asked to exit your vehicle, do so. Police do not have the right to enter or search your vehicle without permission. Do not provide permission. 

Can I refuse a breathalyzer test? 

When you are suspected of driving under the influence, a police officer may request that you take a field breathalyzer test. These tests are not always accurate, and they could produce false readings that are still admissible in a court of law. Instead, you can be given a chemical test such as a blood test or breathalyzer in a more reliable setting at the police station. You are legally allowed to refuse these tests as well, but this typically results in immediate license revocation followed by a suspension period of no less than 12 months. In addition, a search warrant can be requested at that point, which would legally allow police to administer a blood alcohol test. 

Janet Altschuler is an experienced criminal defense attorney in Tucson. She believes that everyone’s rights should be upheld within the criminal justice system, so she will work hard for you in every step of your case. If you’ve been arrested for DUI or other drug or alcohol-related charges in Southern Arizona, call (520) 247-1789.