Understanding Field Sobriety Tests in California

Field sobriety tests can be intimidating, but with the right information and guidance, you can confidently protect your rights and potentially avoid legal complications. Stay informed, seek professional legal advice when necessary, and follow our tips for a smoother experience during a field sobriety test in California.

What is the Field Sobriety Test?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that alcohol-related crashes result in around $37 billion in damages annually.
Field Sobriety Tests are conducted by law enforcement at DUI checkpoints or during traffic stops in the US to reduce accidents caused by driving under the influence (DUI). These tests are divided into two categories: standardized and unstandardized. They involve walking in a straight line or standing on one leg to check if a person can maintain balance and concentrate on multiple tasks simultaneously. Interestingly, scientific studies have shown that when trained police officers administer these tests, they are accurate about 90% of the time in detecting drunk drivers. Plus, the results from these tests can be used as evidence in court.

Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs)

The NHTSA established a standardized sobriety test in the 1970s. This test includes horizontal gaze nystagmus, walk and turn, and one-leg stand.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is a condition where your eyes involuntarily jerk, which can be more noticeable when intoxicated. During this test, an officer observes your eyes as you follow a moving object, such as a pen or flashlight. The officer is checking for:

  1. Difficulty in following the object smoothly.
  2. Twitching that continues when your eyes look as far to the side as possible.
  3. The onset of twitching before the eyes reach a 45-degree angle.

Walk and Turn (WAT)

The (WAT) test consists of two phases: instructions and walking. It evaluates a driver’s ability to maintain balance, walk straight, and follow directions simultaneously. During the test, the individual must take nine heel-to-toe steps along a straight line, execute a turn, and then return in the same manner while keeping their arms at their sides.

The officer looks for eight signs during this test:

  1. Losing balance while listening to instructions.
  2. Beginning to walk before instructed.
  3. Pausing during the walk.
  4. Failing to touch heel-to-toe.
  5. Stepping off the designated straight line.
  6. Using arms for balance.
  7. Turning incorrectly.
  8. Incorrect number of steps taken.

One Leg Stand Test (OLS)

The One Leg Stand Test (OLS) is another divided attention test with two stages: listening to instructions and maintaining balance. During the test, the driver is instructed to raise one leg approximately 6 inches off the ground and hold this position for around 30 seconds, counting aloud. Throughout the test, the driver is required to keep their arms at their sides, focusing on maintaining balance and following the given instructions.

During this test, the officer checks for four things:

  1. Swaying while attempting to maintain balance.
  2. Using arms to help with balance.
  3. Hopping to stay balanced.
  4. Lowering the raised food too soon.

Non-Standardized Tests

Non-standardized field sobriety tests are designed to evaluate a person’s balance, coordination and cognitive abilities under the suspicion of impairment. These tests include:

  • Romberg Balance Test
  • Finger to Nose Test
  • Finger Tap Test
  • Hand Pat Test
  • Reciting the ABCs
  • Number Backward Test
  • Various coin tricks.

Unlike other sobriety tests, these are not reliable and accurate. Officers continue to use non-standard sobriety tests due to limited resources, insufficient officer training, and adherence to outdated practices. This resource shortfall makes it difficult to apply the same test across different situations consistently. Despite existing protocols, individual officers often decide which test to use. Addressing these issues is important for enhancing sobriety tests to be more dependable.

Accuracy and Reliability

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports varied accuracy rates for standardized field sobriety tests. The horizontal gaze nystagmus test has a 77% accuracy rate, the walk and turn test’s accuracy is 68%, and the one-leg stand test shows a 65% accuracy rate.

Rights and Choices During a Traffic Stop

During a traffic stop in California, you have specific rights protected by law. With a 14% rate of traffic stops, California ranks second highest in the U.S. Knowing your rights during these encounters can make a significant difference in how the situation unfolds.

Under the Fifth Amendment, you have the right to remain silent and are not required to answer any questions beyond providing your basic information. Additionally, you can refuse to sign any documents or consent to a search of your vehicle without a warrant.

The Sixth Amendment grants you the right to consult with an attorney. If you feel uneasy answering questions or signing any documents, you have the option to request legal counsel.
The First Amendment allows you to film the police officer as long as it doesn’t hinder their duties. It’s important to let the officer know you’re recording and ensure your device is visible.

Voluntary Participation in Field Sobriety Tests

Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs) are not mandatory, and there are no legal penalties for refusing them. These tests help an officer determine if a driver is impaired. However, it’s important to note that FSTs are challenging by design and not solely indicative of impairment. Factors other than alcohol or drug influence can lead to failure in these tests, and even sober individuals may not pass.

Police Tactics and Misconceptions

Police officers often use different strategies to get information during a traffic stop or questioning. It’s a common misconception that police are always obligated to be truthful; however, they may use deceptive tactics in their investigation. Understand that the law only sometimes requires police to be completely honest when seeking information.

There often needs to be more clarity about our rights and the police’s role. While the Fifth Amendment gives you the right to remain silent, California Vehicle Code Section 12951(b) requires you to share essential details like your name, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance when an officer asks for them.

Officers aren’t required to give their names, badge numbers, or identifying details during a traffic stop. Although California doesn’t have a law that forces officers to share this information during a stop, individual police departments might have their own rules about officer identification.

Legal Implications of Field Sobriety Tests

Police use field Sobriety Tests (FSTs) to check if a driver is under the influence. While you can choose not to take these tests, failing them can lead to a DUI arrest. However, not all failures are due to being drunk or high—nerves or other factors can affect your performance. If you refuse the tests, you might face some penalties like losing your driver’s license. Because FSTs can greatly impact your legal situation, it’s smart to talk to a lawyer if you’re facing DUI charges or have questions about these tests.

Consequences of Refusing a Test

Refusing a Field Sobriety Test (FST) usually doesn’t have direct penalties, but saying no to a breathalyzer or other chemical tests at the police station is a different story. Under the laws of Implied Consent, you must comply with these tests once you’re lawfully arrested for DUI. If you don’t, you could face serious consequences, including a fine that could reach up to $1,000 and mandatory enrollment in a DUI education program for up to 9 months. Understanding these distinctions and consequences is important to make informed decisions during a DUI stop.

Chemical Testing and Implied Consent

Under California Vehicle Code Section 23612, the driver is required to submit to chemical tests, such as breath, blood, or urine tests to determine alcohol or drug levels if they are arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI). The legal limit for Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) stands at 0.08% for drivers aged 21 and over, and just 0.01% for those under 21. Refusal to comply with this requirement can lead to significant legal consequences, reinforcing the critical nature of understanding and abiding by these regulations.

Challenging Field Sobriety Test Results

Challenging Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs) results can be a crucial part of your defense if you are facing DUI charges. It’s important to remember that FSTs aren’t 100% accurate. Failing or refusing these tests doesn’t definitively prove intoxication. Various factors, such as medical conditions, physical limitations, or even the test environment, can impact FST outcomes. These factors can be pivotal in court, providing a valid basis to contest FST results and question their reliability in your case.

Factors Influencing Test Outcomes

The outcome of Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs) can be influenced by various factors, even when conducted under ideal conditions as specified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Despite efforts to standardize these tests, their accuracy still needs to be improved. Below are some key factors that can impact the reliability of FST results.

Physical and Mental Conditions

A person’s physical and mental condition can greatly affect the result. Some common causes of poor performance on FSTs include:

  • If the driver is over the age of 60
  • If the driver is sick or ill
  • If the driver has any back, foot, or leg problems
  • If the driver has inner ear problems
  • If the driver is overweight by 50 or more pounds
  • If the driver has mental disabilities that make it difficult to follow instruction

Police Officer’s Movement
The police officers must remain still and avoid any movements that might distract the individual undergoing the test. If officers walk around or engage in behaviors that divert attention, it can negatively impact the accuracy of the test results.

Environmental Condition
Environmental conditions play a crucial role in executing field sobriety tests. The police officers should ideally conduct the test in suitable environments. Still, factors such as extreme weather, insufficient lighting, uneven road surfaces, and distractions from lights or bystanders can negatively impact the test results.

Unsuitable Clothing
Unsuitable clothing, whether baggy, tight or simply uncomfortable, can influence the test outcome.

Getting pulled over by the police can be stressful, and when you’re stressed, it can be hard to understand and remember instructions.

Questioning the Accuracy of Tests

The legal Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) limits vary depending on your age, profession, and legal status. If you’re over 21, your BAC should be below 0.08%. For those under 21, the limit is 0.01%. Commercial drivers have a limit of 0.04%, as do drivers transporting passengers for hire. If you’re on probation for DUI, the limit remains at 0.01%. Exceeding these limits can lead to serious legal consequences.

Penalties for First Time DUI Offenses in California are:

  • Suspension of your license for up to 6 months
  • Fines starting at $390, with additional penalty assessments potentially reaching up to $2,000
  • A probation period of 3 to 5 years
  • Mandatory completion of a DUI education program

Penalties for Second Time DUI Offenses in California are:

  • Suspension of your license for up to two years
  • Fines starting at $390, with penalty assessments that can exceed $2,000
  • A minimum jail time of 96 hours
  • An extended probation period
  • Mandatory completion of a more comprehensive DUI education program

Penalties for Third Time DUI Offenses in California are:

  • Suspension of your license for 3 or more years
  • Minimum sentence 6 months (120 days)up to one year in jail
  • Fines of $2500 to $3000 with additional penalty assessments potentially increasing the total significantly
  • A longer probation period, potentially including stricter conditions
  • Completion of an even more extended DUI education program or treatment program

Legal Assistance and Defense

When facing a Field Sobriety Test in California, having the right legal help can make a huge difference. It’s not only about defending you in court. Your lawyer will help you understand your rights, the legal system, and next steps.

Importance of Immediate Representation

The moment you’re involved in a Field Sobriety Test, the clock starts ticking. Getting a lawyer is a wise and important decision because early legal advice can often prevent small issues from becoming big problems. A skilled lawyer can guide you on what to say and what not to say and how to navigate the tests and any charges you might face.

Remember, in situations like these, knowledge is power. The more you know about your rights and the law, the better you’ll be able to handle the situation. And that’s what we’re here for—to provide you with the support, advice, and defense you need when you need it most. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Call us directly at 888.527.1267.


Understanding field sobriety tests is key, especially since they are not foolproof. You must know your rights if you’re stopped by the police, including the right to stay silent and seek legal advice. Remember, it’s your right to record such interactions for your protection. If you’re faced with these tests, refusing them doesn’t automatically imply guilt, but saying no to a breathalyzer at the station can have serious consequences. Getting legal advice in such situations can make a huge difference, offering the guidance you need to navigate the complexities of DUI charges. Always stay calm and respectful but firm about your rights during any encounter with law enforcement. Do not hesitate to contact your lawyer for help.

FAQs Regarding Field Sobriety Test

Field sobriety tests are not mandatory in California. You can simply refuse them, and refusing them is not a sign of guilt.

You can refuse a field sobriety test because it is not mandatory. You can not be punished legally for refusing a field sobriety test. However, the police can still arrest you and use a blood draw to measure your BAC ( Blood alcohol content).

The standardized field sobriety test in California consists of three parts: the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, the Walk-and-Turn, and the One-Leg Stand tests, designed to assess impairment and balance.

You can refuse a breathalyzer in California until it’s a handheld breathalyzer and you’re over 21. Still, you must take the breathalyzer test at the police station if you are arrested.

Picture of Author Bio
Author Bio

Samuel ‘Sam’ Nordean is a founding partner of Nordean Law, APC. He is passionate about standing up for people who struggle with accidental injuries and mistreatment from insurance companies. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science degrees in Biochemistry from Portland State University. He then earned his Juris Doctor degree from Chapman University School of Law. Sam started Nordean Law to commit to helping people who cannot fight for themselves. His strengths are in representing victims in car accidents, fatal accidents, negligence cases and liability accidents.

Picture of Author Bio
Author Bio

Samuel ‘Sam’ Nordean is a founding partner of Nordean Law, APC. He is passionate about standing up for people who struggle with accidental injuries and mistreatment from insurance companies. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science degrees in Biochemistry from Portland State University. He then earned his Juris Doctor degree from Chapman University School of Law. Sam started Nordean Law to commit to helping people who cannot fight for themselves. His strengths are in representing victims in car accidents, fatal accidents, negligence cases and liability accidents.

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