Standardized Field Sobriety Test in NJ

Throughout New Jersey, police officers employ Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (“SFST’s”) as a trusted method of identifying intoxicated drivers during traffic stops or at the scene of motor vehicle accidents. These tests are considered so reliable and accurate that they are used not only throughout New Jersey but across the entire United States. Three sobriety tests are acknowledged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) as reliable methods for identifying intoxicated drivers. These tests, the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, the One Leg Stand, and the Walk and Turn test, are typically employed by authorities who suspect that a driver might be intoxicated based on an officer’s initial contact with that driver. In order to determine whether field sobriety tests should be administered, an officer will consider a suspect driver’s response to eye contact, whether any odor of alcohol is detected, and whether the driver is slurring his or her speech or has bloodshot, droopy, or glassy eyes. If sobriety tests are deemed to be warranted based on these factors, the officer will then observe the driver’s ability to multi-task and to physically complete each sobriety test, looking for any signs of impaired ability that could suggest intoxication. Generally, an officer must observe at least two signs of impairment on each of the standardized tests in order to arrest a driver for allegedly driving while intoxicated. Drivers in New Jersey should keep in mind that they do have a right to refuse to engage in any requested field sobriety test. Unlike refusing to provide a breath sample for a breathalyzer test, which subjects a driver to charges similar to those for a DWI conviction in New Jersey, there is no legal obligation for a driver to agree to perform field sobriety tests at the request of authorities.

The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

The first of the three commonly accepted Standardized Field Sobriety Tests is the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test (“HGN”). During this test, the officer will ask the driver to keep their head still, and move only their eyes while watching the officer move a finger, pen, or other object horizontally across the driver’s field of vision. The purpose of this test is to allow officers to observe whether the driver exhibits nystagmus, or an involuntary movement of the pupil, which is a common sign of intoxication. If the driver is unable to move his or her eyes smoothly while following the object across the field of vision, this will be interpreted as a sign of intoxication. Another component of this test requires the officer to hold an object or finger all the way at the edge of your field of vision and request that the driver focuses on the object. During this part of the test, the officer will again check to see if any signs of nystagmus are observed, this time looking to see whether the driver’s pupil remains stable while focusing on the object. If not, and if the pupil exhibits jerky movement while the driver attempts to focus, this too will be noted as a potential sign of intoxication. Finally, the officer will also hold the object at an angle from the driver’s face, again looking to see whether the pupil smoothly focuses on the object or exhibits a movement while the driver attempts to focus. Since the involuntary movement of the pupil is believed to only occur as a result of intoxication resulting from consumption of alcohol, this type of test is deemed by the NHTSA to be the most accurate of the field sobriety tests. However, there is room for error in conducting this type of test, and this test is still the subject of significant debate as to its scientific accuracy and reliability.

The Walk and Turn Test

The second commonly accepted Standardized Field Sobriety Test is the Walk and Turn Test, also known as the “Heel-to-Toe” Test. For this test, the officer will ask the driver to walk forward for 9 steps, maintaining a straight line, and then turn around and walk 9 more steps in a straight line in the opposite direction. The driver will also generally be required to stand on a line while receiving the test instructions, balancing with one foot in front of the other, heel to toe, while keeping their hands down at their sides. The officer will then watch to see if the driver begins to perform the test before instructed to do so, fails to touch the heel of one foot to the toe of the other during any given step, fails to count any of the steps taken aloud, fails to keep their arms down at their sides, fails to keep their balance while walking, or fails to follow instructions in any other way. Any of these omissions will be considered evidence of intoxication. Even if the driver simply needs to steady themselves during the course of the test, that too can be used against them as a sign of intoxication. This test is particularly complex and difficult because there are so many requirements that the driver must keep in mind simultaneously while performing this test.

The One-Leg Stand Test

The third commonly accepted Standardized Field Sobriety Test is the One-Leg Stand Test, which consists of standing while raising one leg about 6 inches above the ground. During this test, the driver will be asked to keep their hands down at their sides and to count up to 30. While the driver completes this test, the officer will watch to see if the driver sways, raises their arms for added balance, lowers the raised foot, or hops on the foot on which they are standing. Any of these actions will be interpreted as signs of intoxication.

Contact Us Today for a Free Consultation

Because of the complexity of the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests that are commonly used throughout New Jersey, and the numerous ways in which these tests can be used against you to suggest intoxication, if you are facing charges for driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence, it is very important to retain a defense attorney with extensive knowledge and experience on the application of these tests in New Jersey. At the Law Offices of Jonathan F. Marshall, our powerful legal defense team has years of experience defending DWI and DUI matters and navigating field sobriety testing issues, and we are often able to successfully reduce the impact of these common tests in DWI or DUI matters.

If you are facing charges for driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence of a controlled substance in Atlantic County, please call us for a free consultation. Our skilled and knowledgeable attorneys are ready to review the facts of your case and aggressively pursue the best possible outcome for you. Call us at 1-877-450-8301 or e-mail us to arrange your free consultation today.