When a police officer stops a driver suspected of driving drunk, he or she will probably administer a field sobriety test. As its name implies, this is an on-the-spot test targeting the physical and mental capacities typically impaired by excess alcohol consumption. Failing this test can be one of the grounds for DUI charges.
However, a widely documented problem with the field sobriety test is that it fails to account for numerous factors, other than alcohol, that can inhibit performance, including a wide range of health conditions. While some drivers are able to let officers know up front about any conditions, others may feel too intimidated to speak up. Although police officers are supposed to get training on the proper administration of the field sobriety test, some may neglect to make sure there are no relevant medical conditions present.
The field sobriety test typically includes physical tasks like standing on one foot or walking in a straight line, the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, as well as mental tasks like simple calculations or reciting the alphabet backward. Health conditions that can make it difficult to perform the physical part of the test include any injuries to the foot or the leg. Additionally, people who are older or significantly overweight can also experience difficulty. Inner-ear and back conditions can also affect the ability to balance. Vertigo, seizure disorders and tremors are also conditions that can impair functioning in these areas.
The horizontal gaze nystagmus test gauges the eye's jerking reflex when moving from side to side. This response is exacerbated by alcohol but can also increase due to several neurological conditions. Anxiety and panic disorders are also conditions that can affect both the mental and the physical portions of the test.
Some people have mental health conditions that affect the mental functioning test. While alcohol can affect memory, focus and coherence, so can a number of mental conditions. The problem is that the police officer administering the test is seeing the driver for the first time and thus has no idea of that individual person's normal level of functioning.
If you are stopped and asked to perform a field sobriety test, refusal is a legal option; unlike breath, blood and urine tests, it is not a chemical test you consent to simply by driving. However, refusing will still probably not protect you from DUI charges, and the fact of your refusal can be used against you if your case goes to trial. Sobriety tests are often recorded on video, so another smart option is to make sure your explanation of your health conditions is part of the recording. If you have been accused of drunk driving, the best thing to do is to consult an experienced attorney as soon as possible.