Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) in Maryland
When a person gets pulled over for suspicion of DUI or DWI in Maryland, the police officer will often ask them to perform a set of Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs), otherwise known as roadside tests. These are divided attention tests that look at a person’s balance, coordination, and ability to follow a long series of directions. Many people are under the mistaken impression that performing well on the tests will somehow help them, either not get arrested or in the trial of the case. In the vast majority of cases this is simply untrue.
The Three SFST Tests
The SFSTs are comprised of three tests; the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, the Walk and Turn test, and the One Leg Stand test. In Maryland, only the last two of those tests are indicative of impairment. The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test is only admissible to show the presence of alcohol, thus it carries the same (relatively low) weight as the odor of alcohol on an individual’s breath. The other two tests are admissible to prove impairment and officers will attempt to use them for that purpose, both in justifying an arrest and request to submit to an evidentiary breath test as well as in potentially proving impairment when there is no evidentiary breath sample.
Why They are Used
The purpose of the SFSTs is not primarily to determine an individual’s level of impairment, rather the tests are designed to generate probable cause for an officer to arrest the individual for suspicion of DUI. In other words, the tests are not set up to measure how drunk someone is, they are set up to allow an officer to justify arresting that person for drunk driving. This means that the tests are not designed to be passed. They are not testing what the suspect believes that they are testing. For example, the walk and turn test is not really testing a person’s ability to walk a straight line. Walking a straight line is only one out of a possible eight clues on the test. The walk and turn test is actually testing an individuals ability to track many separate directions that are given in rapid sequence by the officer.
Are They Accurate?
Many people are unable to pass the SFSTs even if they have had nothing to drink. There are many factors other than alcohol that can effect an individuals ability to complete the tests successfully. Some people have naturally bad balance. People who are overweight can have difficulty completing the tests even when they are completely sober. People who are nervous, like most people when they are being pulled over for suspicion of DUI, have a hard time paying attention to all of the minor instructions that an officer gives when telling them how to complete the tests, and this can result in clues of impairment when there is no alcohol induced impairment.
What if I Refuse to Take Field Sobriety Tests?
Even when people pass the SFSTs they are still frequently arrested and asked to submit to a Breathalyzer test. In my practice I have seen near perfect SFST results used to justify an arrest. Let that sink in for a moment, even if you pass these inherently unfair tests the officer may still choose to arrest you for suspicion of DUI. There is no legal penalty for refusing to submit to SFSTs. The MVA will not suspend your driver’s license for not completing SFSTs. The only thing that happens when an individual refuses to complete SFSTs is that the officer will most likely immediately arrest them for suspicion of DUI. However, in my experience, the officer has already decided to arrest most people prior to asking them to complete the SFSTs.
Should I I Refuse to Take Field Sobriety Tests?
Taking everything that is stated above, it would seem that the most prudent course in the vast majority of cases is to simply refuse to submit to SFSTs when requested by an officer. This is not to say that a person should be rude or aggressive when refusing to complete SFSTs, rather an individual should refuse politely and inform the officer that their attorney advised them never to perform the SFSTs. As always, it makes sense for an individual who is facing any type of criminal or traffic offense in Maryland, particularly DUI or DWI charges to consult with a competent Maryland DUI lawyer.