New Jersey Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

In the state of New Jersey, the police will administer a Standardized Field Sobriety Test if the officer believes you are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If an officer has probable cause that you are driving under the influence, he or she will administer a series of standardized field sobriety tests to confirm suspicion before making any arrests.

In New Jersey, there are three tests that are acceptable in determining whether a motorist is intoxicated:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN)

Since substances like alcohol affect the central nervous system and the brain’s ability to control the eye muscles, the jerking or bouncing of the eye becomes more pronounced as intoxication increases. When administering an HGN test, the officer will have the accused driver follow a pen or finger with their eyes while keeping their head still. This will reveal whether or not there is a lack of smooth motion of the eye from side to side as well as whether the eye begins to jerk before it has moved through a 45-degree angle.

Use of HGN tests in court is contingent upon each jurisdiction. A number of jurisdictions throughout New Jersey do not allow the test to be admitted into evidence at all. Generally, the test is perceived as overly subjective and too scientifically unreliable for use in court. Despite its unreliability, New Jersey does allow the HGN test to be used by police to determine probably cause to arrest an individual for DWI.

Walk and Turn

Perhaps the most commonly referenced of the field sobriety tests, the Walk and Turn test, is administered in two parts. First, the motorist is told to stand with heel to toe and arms down while listening to the instructions. The officer will then instruct the driver to take nine heel-to-toe steps along a real or imaginary line, turn back toward the officer, and take nine heel-to-toe steps back to the starting point. The officer will observe the driver’s ability to follow instructions and maintain balance, paying close attention to the driver’s failure to touch toes, inability to walk a straight line, any excess use of arms for balance, improper turning, or failure to take exactly nine steps.

If the officer observes two or more failures to comply with the instructions, he or she will determine whether the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) if .08 percent or greater. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, if two failures are present during a Walk and Turn test, there is a 68% chance that the driver’s BAC is .08 percent or greater. Despite its semi-frequent effectiveness, the Walk and Turn test is not a fair assessment for many drivers, including drivers with back or leg injuries, those 65 or older, or those with inner-ear disorders. Additionally, if the test is administered on uneven ground or the driver is wearing shoes with heels higher than two inches, such conditions can negatively impact the driver’s performance, resulting in an unmerited DWI offense.

Police officers do not always administer the Walk and Turn test correctly, nor are results always interpreted fairly. Due to such limited consideration of factors prior to making arrests, there are many effective challenges to the Walk and Turn test. A New Jersey DWI attorney with a proven track record of defending drunk driving cases can help in minimizing or even eliminating sentencing for wrongful offenses.

One-Leg Stand

This test, perhaps the most difficult of the tests, the driver must divide their attention between the mental task of counting and following instructions, while trying to master their physical task of balancing. The one-leg stand must be performed on a hard, dry, level, non-slippery surface. In the first part of the test, the administering officer gives verbal instructions, first advising the driver to stand with his or her heels together and arms down at their sides. The officer will then instruct the driver not to start the test until told to do so—compliance with these instructions is a big part of the test, indicating that the suspect understands the instructions enough to not act involuntarily.

The officer then instructs the driver to stand on one leg, with the other foot six inches off the ground, while looking at their raised foot and counting by one thousands (e.g. one thousand-one, one thousand-two) for thirty straight seconds. Throughout the duration of the test, the suspect must look straight down at their foot, keeping their arms at their side without using them for balance at any time. The officer must observe the DWI suspect from at least three feet away and remain as motionless as possible while the suspect is performing the test.

The One-Leg Stand should not be administered to persons who are more than sixty-five years of age, more than fifty pounds overweight, nor to persons with physical impairments that may interfere with balance. There are many missteps that might give the officer probable cause to think the suspect guilty of driving under the influence. First the scoring may be impacted poorly if the suspect puts their foot down or uses their arms for balance, by raising the arms six or more inches from the side of the body. Secondly, the pace at which the suspect counts out loud may indicate signs of intoxication as well. The degree of reliability attached to the One-Leg Stand test is 65%, as indicated by the National Highway Safety Administration.

In the event that the outdoor conditions during the administering of this test do not meet those stated above, a suspect convicted of DWI after performing a failed One-Leg Stand test, may be able to use this evidence as defense in a court of law.

These three tests are the standard for all field sobriety tests used in developing probable cause to make an arrest for a violation of the New Jersey Drinking Driving Law. Oftentimes, there are flaws made in the administering or assessment of these tests. The DWI attorneys at Lubiner, Schmidt & Palumbo possess the proven track records to assess any faulty evidence used in the arrest of a DWI suspect, including any errors made in the evaluation of any of the three standardized field sobriety tests.