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Do I have to submit to field sobriety tests?

When police ask you to step out of your car because they suspect you of drunk driving, it may be a little thing they observed that makes them suspicious. Perhaps your car drifted over the center line. Maybe an officer who pulls you over for a broken taillight believes he smells alcohol on your breath. No matter the reason, police must have probable cause to arrest you, and that means evidence that you may have committed a crime.

The time between police pulling you over and the moment they place you under arrest is when they are gathering evidence against you. Most of this evidence involves their own observations and perceptions, and the field sobriety tests are a prime example of this. If a police officer asks you to participate in field sobriety tests, you have the right to politely decline. It is wise to understand why this may be a good idea.

What the test does not show

Field sobriety tests generally involve three standardized tests. Police may look for exaggeration of your eyes' natural jerkiness. They may ask you to walk a straight line heel-to-toe. They may ask you to stand on one foot and count. It may seem as if the officer is commanding you to perform these tests, but you have the right to refuse. In fact, submitting to these tests may increase the chances that you will end up under arrest even if you haven't had a drop to drink.

You may be shocked to learn how subjective field sobriety tests can be. In fact, one study showed the same video of a field sobriety test to numerous police officers, and about half the officers failed the subject while the rest gave a passing score. These are not the kind of odds you want to risk when there is so much at stake. Some of the factors that may throw you off balance or impede your ability to follow directions during field sobriety tests include the following:

  • Uneven ground
  • Confusing conditions, including flashing lights and the proximity of passing traffic
  • Anxiety and fear of the situation
  • An ear infection, low blood pressure, peripheral neuropathy or other similar conditions
  • Certain medications, including chemotherapy
  • Back pain or foot ailments
  • Arthritis, obesity or age

Even if these do not affect your ability to perform the tests, they may affect the officer's perception of your performance. Many legal advocates recommend refusing field sobriety tests, and your attorney can advise you on the most appropriate course of action if you are facing an arrest for drunk driving in Texas.

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