Challenging Field Sobriety Tests in North Carolina

challenging field sobriety tests

If you were pulled over and a police officer suspects you were driving while impaired, you may be asked to perform Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs). These tests are commonly used by law enforcement officers to assess whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol. Challenging field sobriety tests in the moment--or after it has already been performed--may feel like a bad option, but it is good to know what your options are.

If you are facing North Carolina DWI charges, it is important that you understand the FSTs you were asked to perform, the limits of their effectiveness in proving someone was under the influence of alcohol, and how an experienced criminal defense lawyer can challenge field sobriety tests before and during trial.

Understand Field Sobriety Tests in North Carolina

In North Carolina, police may use a combination of standardized and non-standardized field sobriety tests. While police officers in North Carolina technically cannot use non-standardized FSTs to formulate an opinion on whether a driver is under the influence, many officers use them anyway.

Police officers are trained to look for certain “clues” that allegedly indicate that a driver is under the influence of alcohol. These “clues” include lack of focus, poor coordination, and difficulty completing the tasks.

The officer will evaluate the driver on how well they performed the FSTs. It is important to note, however, that a driver does not pass or fail the FSTs. Instead, the officer evaluates how well the driver performed the tasks and, at trial, will testify that the driver “did not perform the tasks as demonstrated and instructed.”

Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

Standardized field sobriety tests are those that have been approved by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Standardized FSTs include the following three tests that can be used to establish probable cause to arrest a driver for DWI:

  • In the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test, an officer moves a pen or finger in front of the driver’s eyes and observes whether there any delays tracking the movement of the object. If there are delays, this information can be used as an indicator that the driver is under the influence of alcohol. In this test, the officer is looking for alcohol-induced nystagmus. Nystagmus is the involuntary jerking of the eye. It can be caused by reasons other than alcohol as well.
  • Officers may use the One-leg Stand Test (OSL) to assess a driver’s balance and ability to follow instructions.
  • The Walk and Turn Test is also used to assess a driver’s balance and ability to stop and turn on command.

Non-Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

While non-standardized FSTs are not approved in North Carolina, many police officers continue to use them to assess whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol. Common non-standardized FSTs include:

  • The Alphabet Test. The officer will ask you to recite the alphabet.
  • The Finger to Nose Test. The officer asks you to touch one finger to your nose.
  • The Numbers Test. The officer will ask you to count to a number, then count backward from that number.

If you were asked to perform any of these non-standardized tests, a North Carolina DWI attorney can challenge the tests and ask the court to declare them inadmissible at trial.

Attorney Ryan Stowe has received the same NHTSA training that officers receive in both standardized field sobriety testing, as well as advanced level training called Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE). This is important for challenging field sobriety tests in North Carolina.

Probable Cause Requirement

To be legally justified in asking a suspect to perform FSTs, the officer must have reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver is impaired. Without reasonable suspicion, there is no cause for further investigation.

To establish reasonable suspicion that a driver is under the influence of alcohol, officers often point to the “odor of alcohol” in the vehicle, red or watery eyes, erratic driving, or slurred speech. But if the police officer cannot articulate a specific reason to believe the driver was under the influence of alcohol, there is no reason for the officer to ask the driver to perform FSTs. A DWI defense lawyer can challenge whether the officer had probable cause to believe you were under the influence of alcohol and, if successful, can have evidence of your performance on the FSTs excluded from trial.

When an officer asks you to perform FSTs, you are under no obligation to do so. However, if you refuse to perform the FSTs, the officer can point to your refusal to perform the FSTs as evidence of your alleged intoxication.

If you do take the field sobriety tests, the officer must administer the tests in strict compliance with the law enforcement procedures and protocol. If the officer does not follow the format for asking a suspect to perform FSTs, a North Carolina DWI attorney can request that the FSTs not be considered at trial. An experienced DUI defense lawyer will request video of a driver’s performance on the FSTs and evaluate the video for strict compliance with law enforcement protocols.

Challenging Field Sobriety Tests in North Carolina

Before asking a suspect to perform field sobriety tests, a police officer should ask whether there are any medical conditions that could affect the driver’s performance. However, many police officers fail to ask, and even if they do, the driver may not be aware of how a medical condition could influence their performance on the FSTs.

Poor performance could be the result of any number of common medical conditions. In many cases, the effects of medication a driver is taking or the driver’s medical condition can be mistaken for alcohol intoxication.

Common medical conditions that can make a driver appear impaired include:

  • Diabetes
  • Drowsiness
  • High blood sugar
  • Low blood sugar
  • Watery eyes due to allergies, exhaustion, etc.
  • General illness
  • Physical injuries such as back pain, knee pain, or balance issues

A skilled DUI defense attorney can also challenge the conditions under which the tests were administered. For example:

  • Was the roadway sloped?
  • Does the officer know how the driver would perform the tests when not under the influence of alcohol?
  • Does the driver generally have poor coordination?

The Stowe Law Firm: Serious Representation for North Carolina DWI Defense

If you have been charged with driving while impaired in North Carolina, the Stowe Law Firm, PLLC can help. With offices in Salisbury, North Carolina, criminal defense attorney Ryan Stowe represents people in Rowan County, Mecklenburg County, Davidson County, Cabarrus County, and Stanly County.

We invite you to learn more about our team and the cases we handle, to get answers to Frequently Asked Questions, and to contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case and how we can help.

Categories: DWI

About Ryan Stowe

Ryan Stowe's Profile Image
Ryan Stowe is the principal attorney at Stowe Law Firm, PLLC. Mr. Stowe is proud to be practicing in his hometown of Salisbury, NC, and is a first generation Rowan County attorney. Mr. Stowe takes pride in being a criminal defense attorney. He focuse…

Read More About Ryan

Request a Free Consultation

Contact Us

CLIENT REVIEWS

I am extremely thankful for the services of Mr. Stowe, I was facing numerous charges and left with zero! He is absolutely amazing at what he does!!!
– P.C., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
After contacting Mr. Stowe, he easily took the stress off our hands and everything was resolved. I highly recommend Ryan Stowe.
– I.T., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Attorney Ryan Stowe is absolutely the best! When I was charged, he did everything he possibly could to get everything either lowered or dismissed.
– L.Y., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
I will definitely recommend your firm for representation, especially with traffic violations.
– J.B., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
"Willing to take the time out to make sure you are aware of everything (different outcomes) and has your honest best interest in mind."
– S.G., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Mr. Stowe took care of everything and made sure I was aware of the outcome immediately. He saved me a ton of money and cleared up my situation.
– D.M., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Ryan provided me with legal representation for a speeding ticket. … If I were ever in need of an attorney in Rowan County again, I would hire Ryan again.
– N.C., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Excellent service! Thorough in providing information for your case and any steps moving forward.
– C.G., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Ryan was very professional and went above and beyond to get my speeding ticket resolved. ... If you want a lawyer that truly cares choose him.
– Z.R., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Ryan was awesome, got my charges handled fast an[d] one with a dismissal :)
– M.G., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Ryan Stowe is the man with the plan. … He got everything done just as I was instructed he would.
– A.T., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
My experience with this law firm was exceptional from start to finish. Will definitely recommend my friends and family to Ryan Stowe!
– B.M., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Great listener, and done exactly what he said that he was going to do. … More than pleased with the service of this firm.
– T.B., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Ryan was so helpful and professional and aimed to achieve everything I asked of him. He not only achieved what I asked, he exceeded my requests.
– S.W., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Excellent service and care throughout the entire process. Great communication and timely response to any questions or concerns.
– M.M., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Attorney Stowe helped out with a speeding ticket. He was very caring, attentive and professional throughout the whole process.
– A.M., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Mr. Stowe did a fantastic job on my case. He was very professional, sincere, and a credit to his profession.
– A.O., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Best attorney I ever used hands down! Mr. Ryan Stowe will definitely be who I contact for ANY future legal help. Thanks Ryan!!!
– S.P., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
My Attorney Ryan Stowe was AMAZING!!! He was always available with fast and friendly service.
– R.J., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Highly recommended. I was beyond satisfied with the outcome. Very professional. Trust him with your legal services!
– P.R., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★
Ryan was awesome! Provided me with great service and kept me updated and informed throughout the process. Def recommend
– K.G., ★★★★★ Google Review ★★★★★

Read More From Our Clients

closeClose