An In-Depth Look at Field Sobriety Tests, Issue 2: Walk-and-Turn

The walk-and-turn test is one of a battery of three tests included in the standardized field sobriety test (SFST), which is administered after a driver is pulled over for suspected driving under the influence (DUI). Field sobriety tests like the walk-and-turn are used to establish probable cause for a DUI arrest and can also be used as evidence against a driver in proving his or her abilities were impaired by alcohol. In California, alcohol-related DUI is defined as driving while with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or greater, and/or driving while one's abilities are impaired by alcohol. Even if a driver has a BAC of .06%, for example, if the prosecution is able to prove that his or her abilities were impaired, the driver may still be convicted.

Understanding each of the three tests included in the SFST can help a driver understand how these tests results can affect a DUI arrest and charge, while providing insight regarding potential challenges and how a competent lawyer can address "failed" field sobriety tests inside and outside the courtroom.

Last week, we took an in-depth look at the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN). This week we will look at the walk-and-turn test.

About the Walk-and-Turn: How it is Administered, Accuracy & More

The walk-and-turn test is referred to by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as a "divided attention" test. In such a test, a subject has to listen to and follow instructions while performing certain physical movements. According to the NHTSA website, divided attention tests can be performed easily by the majority of unimpaired people, but "impaired persons have difficulty with tasks requiring their attention to be divided between simple mental and physical exercises." This test is therefore used as a measure of a subject's impairment.

During the walk-and-turn test, the officer administering the test will ask the subject to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line for nine steps, turn on one foot and then walk in the same manner in the opposite direction. The officer will watch for the following eight indicators:

  • Subject cannot keep balance while listening to instructions;
  • Subject starts before the officer finishes giving instructions;
  • Subject stops while walking in order to regain balance;
  • Subject does not touch heel to toe while walking;
  • Subject does not walk in a straight line;
  • Subject uses arms to balance;
  • Subjects makes an improper turn; and
  • Subject takes the wrong number of steps.

An NHTSA-funded study, performed by Stuster and Burns in 1998, found that 79% of test subjects who exhibited two or more indicators while performing the walk-and-turn had BACs of .08% or greater.

It is important to note that these accuracy results came from correctly administered tests, in accordance with NHTSA standards. If a test is improperly administered or graded, an officer may wrongly "fail" a driver. This is why a thorough analysis of walk-and-turn test results and every single piece of evidence against a driver is crucial in challenging DUI charges.

Poor Conditions and Improperly Administered Field Sobriety Tests

The conditions in which the walk-and-turn test is administered is one of the key factors that can impact a driver's performance. Imagine being asked to walk in a straight line, heel-to-toe, right next to a busy street or in front of dozens of people outside a bar. Imagine trying to perform this test while wearing high-heeled shoes or while facing the flashing lights of a police cruiser. A noisy and distracting environment, the shoes a driver is wearing and even weather can create poor conditions for performing a walk-and-turn test. Any subject, sober or otherwise, would likely have trouble passing the test.

Another factor to consider is whether the test was administered properly. Were instructions given in a clear and straightforward manner? Was the area lit properly so the subject could see? Was there an actual line for the subject to follow (if there is no line present, the officer should draw one in chalk on the sidewalk or with a stick in the dirt)? Was the walking surface slippery or uneven? Was the officer paying full attention while the subject performed the test? Did the officer grade the test properly, accurately noting down any of the eight indicators to watch for? Deviations from NHTSA standards and California law regarding the administration and grading of field sobriety tests could mean that the results are inaccurate.

With the right approach, there are different ways that walk-and-turn test results may be challenged. As an Orange County DUI attorney with extensive experience in this area and the resources to fully investigate clients' test conditions and results, Virginia L. Landry can offer the level of legal counsel you need. Contact our firm today to find out how we can help with your DUI charges.

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