Field sobriety tests in Virginia are conducted when a police officer suspects that someone is driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI). The results from field sobriety tests in Virginia, combined with other evidence including erratic driving behavior, PBT results, or any admissions to drinking, can be used to establish probable cause that the driver was under the influence of alcohol.
What is a Field Sobriety Test?
Field sobriety tests are divided attention tests conducted on the roadside when a police officer suspects that an individual was operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They test whether the driver can pay attention to directions and perform a physical task at the same time. The theory is that individuals who are under the influence are impaired to the point that they have difficulty dividing their attention between listening to instructions and performing physical acts. Poor performance on these tests indicate to a police officer that an individual is under the influence.
Are Drivers Required to Take Field Sobriety Tests?
Field Sobriety Tests in Virginia are voluntary. A driver can refuse to take field sobriety tests in Virginia and the refusal cannot be used against him as consciousness of guilt. However, if there is evidence that the driver consumed alcohol and this consumption had a noticeable effect on him, refusing field sobriety tests can be used as evidence that the driver knew that his alcohol consumption would affect his performance on the tests. This evidence can help to establish probable cause to arrest.
The 3 Common Field Sobriety Tests in Virginia
The three common field sobriety tests in Virginia that are used during DUI investigations were developed by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These are the nine step walk and turn, the one leg lift, and the HGN test. There are a number of “cues”, or indicators, that the police officer is trained to look for in each of these tests to establish probable cause that a driver might be under the influence. Exhibiting a certain number of cues on each test indicates that the driver likely has a BAC higher than .08% and is therefore under the influence of alcohol.
Walk and Turn
The nine step walk and turn requires the driver to walk nine steps in a straight line, heel to toe. He then must turn around and walk nine steps back, heel to toe. There are eight indicators of impairment:
- Losing balance while listening to instructions
- Starting to early
- Stopping to fix balance
- Failing to touch heel to toe
- Walking off line
- Using arms for balance
- Turning improperly
- Walking an incorrect number of steps
If the individual exhibits at least 2 cues, this indicates a BAC over .08% and therefore that the individual is under the influence of alcohol.
One Leg Stand
The second divided attention test is the one leg stand. The driver must lift one leg 6 inches off of the ground and hold it there until the police officer tells him that he can put his foot down, counting out loud the whole time as instructed by the officer. The officer is looking for the following cues:
- Using arms for balance
- Putting his or her foot down
Two or more of the above “cues” indicate a BAC over .08%.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN)
The third of the standardized field sobriety tests in Virginia, while not a divided attention test, is the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. It is designed to detect an involuntary jerking in the driver’s eyes as they move from side to side. The officer has the individual follow an object from side to side moving only his eyes. An involuntary jerking of the eye during this test can indicate impairment because people under the influence of alcohol will exhibit the eye jerking at less extreme angles than people who are not impaired from alcohol. The indicators that the officer is trained to look for in each eye are:
- The eye cannot follow a moving object smoothly
- Jerking is distinct at maximum deviation
- Angle of onset of jerking is within 45 degrees of the center
If the individual exhibits 2 cues in each eye, or 4 total, he is likely impaired.
Other Field Sobriety Tests in Virginia
There are other field sobriety tests officers may conduct, such as the alphabet test, counting backwards, the nose-touch test and the finger-touch test. These tests are not as common and, more importantly, are not standardized tests according to NHTSA’s research.
Preliminary Breath Test
The officer may also ask the driver to take a Preliminary Breath Test (PBT) as part of the field sobriety tests in Virginia The PBT is a roadside breath test used to determine the presence of alcohol in the driver’s system. If the PBT detects any alcohol, the police officer has probable cause for a DUI arrest (Va. Code §18.2-267(D)). Like the other field sobriety tests in Virginia, this test is not required and the results will not come into evidence against the driver unless he challenges probable cause for his arrest.
For more information on the Preliminary Breath Test in Virginia, click here. For more information on the Breathalyzer Test in Virginia, click here. For more information on the difference between the PBT and the Breathalyzer Test in Virginia, click here.
What to Remember About Field Sobriety Tests in Virginia
There are a number of procedures that police officers are required to follow when performing these field sobriety tests in Virginia. For example, the test should be performed on flat, dry ground. The officer should also determine if the individual has any physical or mental conditions that would prohibit him or her from performing any of the tests.
The most important thing to remember about field sobriety tests in Virginia is that they are voluntary. The officer cannot force the driver to take these tests. If the driver takes the tests, his performance will come into evidence against him at a later DUI trial.
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