How Reliable are Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) as Indicators of Intoxication?
In my opinion, field sobriety tests lack reliability for the following three (3) reasons:
- When they are administered in the field, officers cannot emulate the environment in which the tests were validated.
- The tests fail to take into consideration things like age, weight, disabilities, and injuries.
- From memory, officers often fail to administer the tests in the standardized manner in which the tests were validated.
First, Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) were designed and validated in an office setting with standard individuals and under standardized conditions. In real life, they’re rarely done under these appropriate and controlled circumstances.
In real life, field sobriety tests are administered in the field with varying:
- temperatures (sometimes extreme); and
- icy, wet, uneven, unmarked surfaces
Whether it’s rocks, uneven pavement, rain, or a number of varying aggravating factors that were not part of the test validations, all of these things can make the tests less reliable. In order to be reliable, Standardized Field Sobriety Tests must be administered in a standardized fashion and scored with standardized scoring techniques.
Second, Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) don’t account for things like the subject’s:
- physical disabilities
- mental disabilities
Standardized Field Sobriety Tests were validated using standard individuals of appropriate age, weight, and physical capabilities. When they are done on older, over-weight individuals or individuals with the physical or mental disabilities or injuries, the tests can become unreliable.
For example, if you’re a 78-year-old man being asked to perform these tests, the way the tests are administered and scored is the same as it is for a 28-year-old man. Standardized Field Sobriety Testing don’t account for age, disabilities, illnesses, or injuries.
Lastly, officers are trained on field sobriety test administration and then have refresher courses maybe once every ten years or so. This leaves officers vulnerable to making errors in the administration or scoring of the tests. If an officer fails to give a required instruction or otherwise fails to administer the test in the standardized format, the test can become unreliable.
If your attorney doesn’t know how field sobriety tests are supposed to be administered, what the officer did or didn’t do will not be accounted for when weighing the reliability of the tests.
All of the above-mentioned pitfalls come into play with respect to reliability. The field sobriety tests that would otherwise be reliable indicators of intoxication can become unreliable indicators of intoxication, but yet the officer and the District Attorney still rely on them to be circumstantial evidence of intoxication and to establish probable cause for an arrest.
This is not legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. Please consult a lawyer if you are charged with a DWI. Please remember, you can call Tom Anelli 24/7 at 1-800-DWI-1100 or www.dwitom.com