Understanding NJ Field Sobriety Tests

balanceIn New Jersey, when a law enforcement officer suspects a motorist of driving under the influence, there must be a justifiable reason for the suspicion and subsequent traffic stop. If, for example, a driver is seen weaving unsteadily on the roadway, moving very slowly or making dangerous maneuvers, the officer will stop the vehicle to investigate. As the officer engages with the driver, he or she will look for telltale signs of DWI. These can include slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and the smell of alcohol emanating from the vehicle. Once it is believed that a DWI is being committed, the officer will move on to the field sobriety tests.

Field Sobriety Tests Used In New Jersey

There are a vast number of field sobriety tests that might be familiar from their use in entertainment programs. However, there are only three legitimate, standardized field sobriety tests that have been approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These tests are the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, the One Leg Stand test and the Walk and Turn test.

Officers are trained to give these tests, but their own judgment is important when they analyze and interpret how a person is faring when performing them. If a person has a medical issue, is overweight or has some other reason they have been unable to perform the tests in an manner that would be viewed as “passing” the test, the officer must decide whether it is a viable excuse for poor performance.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

For the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, the officer will look for the involuntary jerking of the eyes when an object is placed in front of them. The officer will tell the subject to stare at an object like a pen or small flashlight. The object will be moved to the left and right with the subject asked to move his or her eyes to follow it. The officer will watch the subject’s eyes and check to see if there is jerking or bouncing of the eyeball. This test is believed to have a high rate of accuracy in determining whether or not a person is under the influence – more than 75%.

However, it is possible to defend against a failed Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test. If the person is suffering from glaucoma, has an illness such as an inner ear infection or has been using certain types of medication, it is possible that the failed test could be explained logically and not be due to DWI.

One Leg Stand Test

With this test, the officer will see if the subject is able to maintain balance. The driver will be asked to stand with feet together and hands at their sides. One foot will be lifted six inches off the ground with the toes pointed forward. He or she will then be asked to count out loud. The officer will look for signals of impairment such as swaying, hopping, trying to use the arms to balance or falling over.

Defenses for a failed One Leg Stand Test can include a medical issue that prevents the test from being completed as required to determine sobriety. If the test is given on an uneven or rocky surface, a defense attorney can claim that the circumstances surrounding the test were unfair and should therefore be disregarded.

Walk And Turn Test

The name describes the test in and of itself. The subject will be asked to walk nine steps in a straight line from with one foot in front of the other. Like the One Leg Stand test, the arms will be kept at the side while the Walk and Turn test is being performed. If the subject is unable to maintain the straight line, continually falls off to the side or tries to use the arms to balance, this will be an indication of impairment.

This test is considered to be less than 70% reliable when determining whether or not a driver is under the influence. This test also must be conducted on even ground. If it is not, the defense attorney can claim that it was not given fairly and try to have the results thrown out.

The Importance Of Field Sobriety Tests

In some instances, the officer will not have a breathalyzer machine in the police vehicle making the results of the field sobriety tests the determining factor as to whether an arrest will be made. The field sobriety tests can be somewhat subjective in how they’re interpreted and depend on the circumstances under which they were given. When there is an arrest for DWI based on field sobriety tests alone, the driver will have an opportunity to present a defense based on perceived unfairness in how they were given. If the traffic stop was made without a valid reason, this too can call the entire case into question and give the defense an opening to exploit and win an acquittal or dismissal.

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