flagstaff criminal defense attorneysYou’ve been pulled over. You know you weren’t speeding and you’re pretty sure all of the lights on your car are in working order. You’re still trying to figure out why the police have stopped you when the officer arrives at your window and politely asks you to step out of the car. 

That’s when it dawns on you. The officer thinks you’re drunk. And so you’re about to undergo some field sobriety tests.

Different Types of Field Sobriety Tests

The name “field sobriety tests” simply refers to the idea that an officer administers the tests in the “field”—that is wherever you were stopped (rather than, say, back at the police station). There are a number of different tests the officer may ask you to complete. Some of these tests are standardized, meaning there are specific metrics for the officer to consider. Other tests are non-standardized and therefore extremely subjective.

  • The Walk and Turn Test – Standardized. This test is focused on your balance (and the ability to follow simple directions). You will walk heel-to-toe for nine steps, pivot on one foot, and walk back in the same manner. 
  • The One Leg Stand Test – Standardized. This is another test of your balance. The officer will ask you to stand on one leg with the other about six inches in the air. The length of the test is determined by the officer.
  • The Modified Romberg Balance Test – Non-standardized. Yet another test of your balance, this test involves having you stand with your feet together, your head tilted slightly back, and your eyes closed. The officer will ask you to say “stop” when you think 30 seconds have passed. The timing aspect, in theory, gives the officer some insight into your mental condition.
  • The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus – Standardized. “Nystagmus” refers to the amount of involuntary eye bounce you exhibit when moving your eyes from side to side. To judge this, the officer will ask you to look forward and follow the movement of an object moving only their eyes. Rapid or increased eye movements may indicate inebriation. 
  • The Finger to Nose Test – Non-standardized. This is the test that is likely most often shown in pop culture representations of traffic stops—and the name is an accurate description. You will be asked to touch your nose with your index finger. The officer may have you do this from a variety of starting positions, though most people think of this test starting with their arms out wide to their sides.

Pass or Fail? It Isn’t Quite That Simple

While the idea of each of these tests is that they will allow the officer who stopped you to determine whether you are intoxicated, the fact is that each of these tests has potential issues. For example, the balance tests assume a person would have excellent balance if sober. But this is not necessarily the case. Those with injuries, who are overweight, or who are simply made nervous by an interaction with a police officer may not do well on those tests. 

When it comes to the non-standardized tests (the modified Romberg balance test and the finger to nose test), the lack of clear metrics means that the office must make a judgment call. That judgment call may or may not reflect the reality of the situation. In fact, it is possible for you to pass a breathalyzer test and still “fail” a field sobriety test. 

Charged With DUI? Time to Call a Criminal Defense Lawyer

There are a number of situations in which the results of a field sobriety test can be called into question. We have noted the subjective nature of some of the tests and the factors that can make even the standardized tests less than fully reliable. It is also important to discover whether the officer who administered the test has completed the appropriate training. 

If you have been charged with driving under the influence on the basis of field sobriety tests, you need to contact a lawyer who can review the situation and offer advice for how to move forward. At Griffen & Stevens, we have the expertise necessary to help you pursue all your options after you have been charged with driving under the influence. Contact us to schedule a consultation.


Ryan J. Stevens, Esq.
Ryan Stevens is an award-winning Arizona trial attorney with success in major felony and civil jury trials.