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Bias in field sobriety tests

Even if you have never been pulled over for a DUI before, you have likely seen some version of a field sobriety test on a movie or in other media. Some of them seem relatively easy, while others look impossible to complete even when sober.

When an officer pulls someone over for suspected drunk driving, they already have some reason to make the stop, but does that make an impact on how the officer scores the field sobriety test? With potentially complex tests and an officer who may be tired, overworked or otherwise in a poor position to make a fair assessment, it begs the question of whether the officer has decided on the outcome of the stop before you step out of the vehicle.

This is what to consider about how officers complete field sobriety tests.

What are officers looking for, anyway?

The reason field sobriety tests seem so complicated is because they are meant to test whether you can think about more than one task at a time. An important part of safe driving is being able to think and react to what is happening both in the car and on the road.

If you have been drinking, it is difficult for your brain to think and respond to multiple problems at one time. For example, you may have a difficult time counting and walking in a straight line. You will likely be able to do one part, but not the other.

While the tests seem like they are completely arbitrary and meant to make you look foolish, field sobriety tests are intended to challenge the type of brain processes that tend to be inhibited by alcohol.

Guilty before it starts?

Of course, it is up to the officer to decide how you perform on the test. Unfortunately, the test is not like a math test where there are right and wrong answers. It is up to the officer to decide if you were having trouble balancing or if your breath smelled like alcohol.

Often, before you ever step out of the vehicle, the officer has been watching for signs you are intoxicated, including:

  • Slurred speech
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Errors on the road

If, in addition to these clues, the officer notices you are having difficulty with the field sobriety test, he or she may decide you are too impaired to drive.

Even though there may be some bias in the field sobriety test, it is still a good idea to participate with a positive attitude. If the officer is using his or her judgment to determine your sobriety, it is in your best interest to make the process as calm as possible.


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