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Are field sobriety tests valid?

There are many reasons police in North Carolina may suspect a driver to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. During a traffic stop, officers will likely ask the driver to perform standardized field sobriety tests to determine whether they are intoxicated. Are these tests accurate, though, and should they be considered valid evidence of a driver’s intoxication? Many defense attorneys and researchers say no.

Understanding standardized field sobriety tests

In the 1970s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration evaluated numerous field sobriety tests that law enforcement used on drivers to gauge their blood alcohol content levels and abilities to drive. During the evaluation, the NHTSA determined that officers were correct 53% of the time, which equates to a 47% error rate. Also, the ways officers conducted the tests were not consistent across the board. The NHTSA discovered the three most accurate tests were the walk-and-turn test, the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, and the one-leg stand test. These three tests make up the standardized field sobriety tests officers use today.

However, the NHTSA determined that these tests still have considerable error rates, ranging from 23% to 35%. When all three were used together, the error rate dropped to 18%. Although an improvement, it doesn’t do much for those falsely accused of DUI who fall in that 18%. Furthermore, researchers do not support the idea that any of the tests accurately determine BAC levels — or if they do, they suggest only that a driver is intoxicated, not that he or she cannot operate a motor vehicle safely. Scientists do not believe these tests provide a scientific method on which to base a DUI charge.

Challenge field sobriety test results

Experts have discovered discrepancies in the way tests are conducted, and they maintain the tests cannot accurately measure a driver’s level of intoxication. In fact, no conclusive evidence exists that sober drivers perform better on these tests than intoxicated drivers. As such, anyone arrested for DUI in North Carolina after purportedly failing a field sobriety test should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately to devise a plan to challenge the test results and obtain a favorable outcome regarding their DUI charges.

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