Close to 90,000 DWI charges were reported in Texas in 2021, up from 83,000 in 2020. A person is deemed legally intoxicated in the state when their blood alcohol concentration is 0.08% or higher, though they are breaking the law as soon as alcohol or drugs affect their ability to drive.
The specific penalties for a DWI vary depending on whether it was a first or subsequent offense. Even a first offense can result in a significant fine, jail time, and loss of a driver’s license. Field sobriety tests are often used by police during DWI stops as a way to gauge whether a person is inebriated or not.
In this blog post, we will take a closer look at field sobriety tests. We will highlight the different types of sobriety tests, whether or not a person can refuse a test, how accurate these tests are, the factors that can affect a test result, and what you should do if charged with a DWI in Texas. Let’s get started.
What Is a Field Sobriety Test?
A field sobriety test is a preliminary test used by police in order to evaluate whether or not a motorist is intoxicated. These tests are performed on the side of the road after a motorist has been stopped and pulled over.
The test is designed to test the motorist’s ability to perform the kind of physical and mental multitasking required to safely and effectively operate a vehicle. As we will see below, there are a number of different tests that a police officer can ask a person to perform.
Such tests do not use chemical evidence (such as urine or blood), rather they rely on physical evidence. The results, therefore, are based on the subjective opinion of the police officer administering the test.
Field sobriety tests are very common; it is likely that you have passed other motorists performing such tests in the presence of police officers. Many motorists are unaware of the exact rules surrounding field sobriety tests and incorrectly assume that they are obliged to consent to such a test. As we will see below, this is not true.
What Are the Different Types of Sobriety Tests?
Before we look at the laws surrounding field sobriety tests in Texas, it’s important to highlight the different types of tests that a police officer may request from a motorist. Generally, a police officer in Texas will use one (or more) of the three field sobriety tests listed below.
Walk and Turn Test
The walk and turn test is a common field sobriety test in Texas. It is a way for police officers to measure a person’s balance and coordination, done so as to detect impairment from alcohol or other substances.
This test involves a police officer requesting that a motorist walks in a particular direction from heel to toe. The motorist must keep their arms at their sides and their eyes cast down. Once the motorist walks the requested distance, they must turn around and, while maintaining their heel-to-toe movement, walk back in the opposite direction.
The police officer who requested that the motorist take this test will closely watch their movements throughout. For example, they will look to see if the motorist fails to walk heel-to-toe, stops during the test, uses their arms for balance, fails to walk in a straight line, or fails to properly turn.
One Leg Stand Test
Another common field sobriety test is the one leg stand test. In order to perform this test, a person must raise one foot approximately six inches off the ground. They must then count out loud for a specific amount of time, as stipulated by the police officer (typically 30 seconds).
During the entirety of the test, the person’s arms must remain at their side and cannot be used as a means of improving balance. For a police officer, there are a number of indicators for alcohol intoxication from this test.
These include if the motorist hops to maintain balance, sways to maintain balance, uses their arms to maintain balance, or puts their foot down before the test is fully completed.
As we will highlight below, there are a number of issues with such a test. For example, a person may have difficulties with their balance or physical limitations. Therefore, a person may fail a test such as the one leg stand test even if they are not under the influence of alcohol.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test
As the name suggests, this test involves a police officer tracking the motorist’s eyes. The officer will hold an object up and then move it back and forth slowly. The motorist is asked to follow the object with their eyes as it is moved around.
During the test, the officer will look for a number of things. These include the motorist’s inability to follow the object with their eyes and a jerking of the eyes when the object reaches a certain angle.
For decades, this test has caused considerable debate. That said, evidence from this test can have a big impact at trial unless it is properly challenged by the defense.
Do You Take To Take a Field Sobriety Test in Texas?
The short answer to this question is no, you do not have to consent to a field sobriety test in Texas. Unless a police officer has a warrant, they do not have the right to search for evidence without a person’s consent. A field sobriety test is such a form of searching for evidence and a motorist can simply refuse it.
It is possible that a motorist who refuses to take part in a field sobriety test will be arrested. The reality is that if a police officer requests that a motorist takes a field sobriety test, they have likely already made up their mind to make an arrest and are simply attempting to get more evidence.
Therefore, it is not recommended that you consent to a field sobriety test as this can give law enforcement more ammunition to use against you. If a motorist is arrested and charged, prosecutors rely on evidence to prove that they were guilty of a DWI. If they do not have evidence from a field sobriety test, it is more difficult for them to argue that the motorist was driving under the influence.
Are Field Sobriety Tests 100% Accurate?
There is another short answer that we can give here. No, field sobriety tests are not 100% accurate. In fact, they are not close to being 100% accurate. Because field sobriety tests are ingrained in DWI arrests, it is understandable that many people think they are highly accurate, though this is not the case.
A number of studies have looked at the efficacy of these tests, including studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One such study found that the three field sobriety tests have the following accuracies:
- Walk and turn test – 68% accurate
- One leg stand test – 65% accurate
- horizontal gaze nystagmus test – 77% accurate
When all three of these tests are used on a motorist, the efficacy does improve. However, the accuracy only improves to between 86% and 95%, so they are still not completely accurate.
It’s important to note that in these studies, the tests were performed under ideal conditions, which is not something that will always be the case during a DWI stop. As we will see below, there are a number of factors, including road conditions, that can affect the accuracy of a field sobriety test.
Factors That Can Affect a Test Result
As noted above, a field sobriety test can be wrong. A person may fail the test for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with intoxication. Here are some of the comm factors that can affect a test’s accuracy.
The weather can have a big impact on a person’s ability to correctly perform the steps of any of the three field sobriety tests. High winds, rain, and other weather events can make it more difficult to properly perform a test.
For example, high winds may mean that a person is not able to properly hear the police officer when they are issuing their instructions. High winds can also affect a person’s balance during any of these tests.
Taking a field sobriety test on an uneven road surface can have a big impact on the results (i.e. the subjective opinion of the police officer). An uneven road surface can make it more difficult to walk in a straight line or walk without losing balance.
In the case of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, if the test was performed while the police car’s lights were flashing, this may cause nystagmus even if the motorist was not intoxicated. The noise of passing traffic can also have an impact on a person’s ability to correctly perform a field sobriety test.
The actions of the police officer may also make it impossible for a motorist to properly perform a field sobriety test. For example, an officer may not give necessary instructions when explaining a particular test.
In many cases today, evidence on camera footage, whether from body cameras or dash cams, can reveal if an officer failed to give the correct instructions. In the event that the proper instructions were not given, the accuracy of any field sobriety test that a motorist performed can be seriously questioned.
As noted above, there are a number of factors that may affect a person’s ability to correctly perform a field sobriety test. For example, a person may have a condition that affects their legs, their eyes, or their eyes.
A temporary or permanent disability can affect a person’s ability, for example, to perform the walk and turn test. Remember, these tests were designed for use on able-bodied individuals. This can make them inapplicable to a large percentage of the population.
Getting stopped by the police is never nice; many people become incredibly nervous when it occurs. There is something about the flashing blue and red lights that can make a motorist anxious, even if they have not done anything wrong.
Therefore, a person’s behavior can radically change when in the presence of police officers. If you are asked to perform a field sobriety test while feeling anxious or nervous, your ability to correctly perform the necessary can be impacted. Following directions, for example, can become far more difficult when feeling stressed.
What Is a “No Refusal” Weekend in Texas?
It’s also worth highlighting what a “no refusal” weekend is in Texas, given that there are some misunderstandings surrounding it. Many motorists believe that if they are stopped on a “no refusal” weekend, they have no choice but to consent to a field sobriety test. However, this is untrue.
A “no refusal” weekend simply means that police officers have extra resources to obtain a search warrant on the spot. In such a scenario, a motorist does have to comply with an officer’s orders (but not before producing a warrant).
What to Do if You Have Been Charged With a DWI?
If you have been charged with a DWI in Texas, it is essential that you contact a professional DWI lawyer without delay. Here in Austin, TX, your premier choice for a DWI lawyer is Deandra Grant Law.
To learn more about your options, schedule a free consultation with our expert team today. We are here to help you fight your DWI charge.