Field Sobriety Tests vs. Standardized Field Sobriety Tests
When an officer stops a motor vehicle, he or she must be able to make an arrest or release decision relatively quickly. In the past, this was a pretty easy task because officers were not prone to arrest a person unless the driver exhibited clear signs of intoxication. Police officers in the 1950s through the early 80s were more inclined to tell someone to get a cup of coffee or give the motorist a courtesy ride home. With the attention that MADD focused on drunk driving in the 1980s, those days are long gone. Police officers occasionally get disciplined and terminated for giving an intoxicated motorist a ride home.
Early field sobriety tests were literally invented by police officers. These tests were almost meaningless. The coin pick up required a motorist to reach down and collect 37 cents out of random coins thrown on the ground by the officer. Others required the subject to blow into the officer's hat. Some of these tests were intentionally unfair, while others were inadvertently unfair. A great example of an inadvertently unfair test is an old version of the one leg stand test that required the motorist to tip his or her head back and close their eyes while raising either foot approximately six inches off the ground. Because of how the vestibular system works, this test is nearly impossible for any person to perform, but it is still employed by officers today on a rare occasion.
The standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs) were developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and these tests are the horizontal gaze nystagmus test (HGN), the walk and turn test (WAT), and the one leg stand (OLS). The testing materials taught to officers also include the alphabet, counting backwards and finger-count as preliminary screens. As a preliminary screen, these tests are deemed too unreliable for admission into evidence, but Michigan permits the officers to describe all of these tests before a jury.
The SFSTs must be administered in a particular manner. There are extremely detailed methodologies taught to officers on how these tests are supposed to be conducted, including preliminary screening questions and procedures, oral instructions, demonstration, scoring of specific clues, and interpretation of the test results. None of this matters to most Michigan courts, however, which have expressed a general distrust of the SFST battery. But don't get too excited, because Michigan courts have repeatedly held that nearly everything that an officer describes that might be peculiar constitutes probable cause, and courts generally allow officers to testify about the walk and turn and the one leg stand test when the tests are administered and scored improperly. The HGN test is another issue altogether, since it is a scientific test. If the officer administered an HGN test in a matter of few seconds (which is all too common), the test was performed incorrectly, and the HGN test cannot survive a challenge in court.
NHTSA FLAWED FIELD SOBRIETY TEST RESEARCH
Research into field sobriety tests has been conducted by NHTSA since the mid-1970s. Early research through SCRI, the Southern California Research Institute, focused on finding tests that could be easily administered and would produce reliable, accurate results. This research, which places an emphasis on the nystagmus eye test as well as other voodoo eye measurements, has proven to be heavily flawed. With an extremely high false-arrest rate, NHTSA emphasizes only correct arrest decisions.
NHTSA and its SCRI researchers constantly make outlandish claims to hide the high number of false arrests, while touting accuracy statistics that claim field sobriety tests are more than 90 percent accurate. In many drunk driving cases, it is not difficult for an officer to reasonably perceive that person might be intoxicated when the subject is hardly able to stand up. But on the other hand, it is absolutely legal to drink and drive, and a person who is absolutely sober should almost never be mistaken for a person over the legal limit. But that happened many times in the original research. 1 out 5 completely sober test subjects were "arrested" by police officers with absolutely no alcohol on board. SCRI researcher Marcelline Burns claims that police officers would not make these mistakes in the field (as opposed to a laboratory?), and she further claims that some of their laboratory tested subjects may have been under the influence of drugs in an effort to justify the high number of false arrests. This is absurd.
Fast forward to the San Diego study conducted in 1998, for example. This study was conducted to determine whether the standardized field sobriety test battery was valid at the lower .08 limit. In the San Diego study, NHTSA reports that a correct arrest decision was made 91% of the time. The study also found (but did not emphasize) that one-third of motorists under the legal limit exhibited 4 or more clues on the HGN horizontal gaze nystagmus test. Four clues indicates that motorist is intoxicated. More than half of motorists failed the Walk and Turn test, and almost half of the motorists failed the One Leg Stand.
If you are defending a case in Michigan keep in mind Attorney William Maze has not only been certified in the same NHTSA/IACP Feild Sobriety Testing Practitioner course as police officers; but he is also hired by other attorneys to testify as an expert witness on their cases.