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Things you should know about field sobriety tests

Suppose you're driving along a California roadway and you notice a police car coming up behind you with flashing red and blue lights and a siren blaring. As obligated, you quickly find a spot where you can safely pull off the road, as you realize the officer is making a traffic stop. It may or may not be the first time you have been in such a situation. Either way, what you do and say in the next moments may greatly impact the outcome of your circumstances.

What should you do if the police officer approaches your driver's side window and asks you to step out of your car? If this happens, and you comply, the officer is detaining you. That means you are no longer free to leave the scene unless you have the officer's permission to do so. It also means you're entitled to legal representation before you answer any questions that may incriminate you if you later face DUI charges in court.

First step out of car may lead to next steps in a walk-and-turn test

Once you're out of your car, the police officer may ask you to take a field sobriety test if he or she believes you were driving under the influence of alcohol. There is no legal obligation for you to submit to such a request, although refusing to do so may complicate your situation. The following list contains facts you'll want to know regarding FSTs and how the results of such tests may affect your situation:

  • Even though DUI laws vary by state, police officers in California and most other states usually use the same three types of FSTs to determine if they have probable cause to make DUI arrests.
  • While FSTs are optional, chemical tests are not. If you refuse to take a chemical test, you will likely incur automatic administrative penalties, such as driver's license suspension.
  • The walk-and-turn test is one of the three basic FSTs. The officer may ask you to walk a straight line with your arms outstretched at shoulder length, placing the heel of one foot at the toes of the other. When you reach the designated end of the line, you will have to turn 180 degrees and repeat the whole exercise in the opposite direction.
  • Whether the officer asks you to take the walk-and-turn, one-leg stance or horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the bottom line is that he or she likely suspects you of drunk driving and is testing your ability to follow simple instructions while simultaneously performing certain physical tasks.

The problem is that some of the physical tasks are challenging even for sober people. Have you ever tried to stand on one leg for 30 seconds with arms held out to your sides while you count out loud by 1000s? You may have a prior injury or other health condition that makes such tasks extremely difficult. If you fail the test, you're likely to wind up in the back of a police car on your way to jail for DUI.

Accessing support

When a police officer detains you, you have the right to request legal representation. In fact, you may invoke your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent until and unless such representation is present.

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