Why You Should Never Take a Field Sobriety Test

You’re driving home in the evening. You’re groggy from a long day at work. Not just groggy: exhausted. When suddenly, those lights in your rearview start flashing red and blue. Did you do something wrong? Why are you being pulled over?

You provide your license and insurance, and the cop says you need to step out of the vehicle to perform a field sobriety test. Should you?

The answer is unequivocally NO. Even if you haven’t had anything to drink. But wait – if you haven’t had anything to drink, what do you have to lose?

The Standardized Field Sobriety Test

The SFST consists of three parts: the one-leg stand, the walk-and-turn and the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. These tests have more instructions than might meet the eye.

In California (and many other states) we have an implied consent law. This means that, if you have a driver’s license, it is implied that you consent to tests to measure your blood alcohol content (BAC) if you are arrested for DUI. In California, the implication is that you consent to breath testing after being arrested for DUI. You can refuse the breath test, despite what an officer might tell you. But if you refuse after the arrest, there are some serious penalties. Even for a first-time refusal, you may lose your license for one year, be jailed for 48 hours and have to take nine hours of alcohol education courses.

The problem with these tests is that anyone – drunk, sober or otherwise – can fail them. Once you have been asked to perform a field sobriety test, you should assume that the officer assumes you are impaired. But there’s the rub – you don’t have to be impaired to fail a field sobriety test. For the HGN test, for example, you may have natural nystagmus that has nothing to do with alcohol. With the walk-and-turn, maybe you just have bad balance.

Furthermore, there is no legal repercussion for refusing. Will it look suspicious? Maybe. The police officer will likely order you to take some other test, breath or blood – and those you are required by law to do. If you refuse a breath or blood test, there are immediate administrative penalties, such as driver’s license suspension.

And a final note: you may be asked to submit to a breathalyzer at the scene of the stop. That portable thing the officer is shoving in your face? You can refuse that, too.