Field Sobriety Tests in Maryland DUI Cases

When a police officer pulls a person over for DUI or DWI suspicion, he will usually have the person get out of their car and perform a series of physical tests. The three most common tests are the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test (HGN), the One-Leg Stand test (OLS), and the Walk and Turn test (W&T). The officer may also ask a suspect to blow into a Portable Breath Test device. These tests are all completely voluntary. A person suspected of DUI does not have to perform any of the Field Sobriety Tests. These tests are used to provide evidence, or probable cause, for a police officer to arrest the person for DUI and ask them to do a breath test back at the police station.

To view a complete description of the three commonly used SFSTs please refer to the following:

We also provide a brief overview of each of the tests below, including information on the creation and use of standardized field sobriety tests.

How Are These Tests “Standardized”?

The official name of the roadside tests are Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. The word “standardized” is extremely important. “Standardized” means that there is an official and correct way to administer the Field Sobriety Tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) publishes a manual and conducts training and certification courses for police officers in how to properly administer Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. The police officer who is conducting the tests must do so in the proper manner; otherwise the test results are invalid and should not be considered as evidence of impairment.


Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus

There’s the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, which is a test where you track the officer’s pen, finger, flashlight, or some kind of stimulus moving just your eyes and not your head. What the officer is looking for there is a wobble in the eye, something called Nystagmus. It isn’t a smooth tracking of the eye, rather the eye moving like a jerky staggered motion.

They’re looking for three types of clues on the Nystagmus test. They’re looking for lack of smooth motion, meaning that the eye doesn’t move smoothly and moves in a jerky way. They’re looking for Nystagmus at maximum deviation which is when the eye is turned furthest to the right or the left, a characteristic wobble in the eye, and then they’re looking for Nystagmus at 45 degrees.

Walk and Turn Test

The second of the standardized field sobriety tests is the walk and turn test. During the walk and turn test, there are two phases to the test.

There’s the explanation phase when individual has to stand in an instructional position with their right foot in front of their left foot and their arms held at their sides without moving while the officer explains the test. If an individual isn’t standing in that position, they’ve actually just given the officer a clue on the walk and turn test. The other clue on the instructional phase of the walk and turn test is starting the testing soon, meaning if an individual starts moving before the officer specifically instructs them to begin the test, that counts as a clue.

Then, while they’re doing the test, if they raise their arms more than six inches from their side while walking, then that’s a clue. If they don’t touch heel to toe every step that they take, then that’s a clue. If they step off the line that the test is being administered on, then that’s a clue. If they don’t turn properly that would be a clue as well.

The turning in the walk and turn test has to be executed in a very specific and really odd and unusual way. Instead of pivoting or spinning around their planted foot, an individual has to take a series of small steps around their planted foot and then return to the other foot from the position that they began the test.

That is, by the way, the most common clue that people fail because nobody turns like that. Everyone turns like a pivot which is the normal way to turn. So that’s one of the most common clues; that and not standing in the correct instructional position when the test is explained.

One Leg Stand Test

The final test is the one leg stand test. In that test, an individual is asked to stand on one foot and count to 30. What the officer is looking for is balance: do they hop, do they sway, do they use their arms for balance, or do they put their foot down.

The other thing that an officer would be looking for in the administration of that test is an individual’s perception of how much time passes. They should get to 30 at right around 30 seconds. Sometimes an individual get to 30 and it’ll take them a minute and a half or it’ll take 20 seconds. The officer is going to make note of that because not having a good sense of the passage of time could be an indication of impairment.

So those are the three standardized field sobriety tests that an officer may ask an individual to perform. In addition, there are some non-standardized tests including counting, alphabets and finger to nose.

Those are not standardized so they don’t carry nearly as much weight as the three tests that we previously discussed.

Portable Breath Test

Finally, the officer could ask an individual to blow into a portable breath test on the side of the road. Now that test is inadmissible to prove breath alcohol content in a court of law. It just goes to give the officer probable cause to effectuate an arrest for DUI.

Unfortunately, since most people have not spoken to a Maryland DUI lawyer about this prior to their contact with the police, they are not aware that they don’t have to do any of the roadside tests. Police officers often tell people that the results of the Portable Breath Test cannot be used against them in court. This is essentially true; however, the officer is allowed to use the result of the PBT to decide whether or not they have probable cause to arrest the suspect. A person does not have to blow into a PBT. A suspect is not under any obligation to give the officer more evidence to make an arrest decision.

How Maryland Officers Use Field Sobriety Test Results

This is particularly important in cases where a suspect refuses to blow into the breathalyzer at the police station. If the state does not have a breath test, they must prove a defendant’s guilt using driving behavior, general demeanor, and the results of the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. Or, if a driver blows a BAC that is lower than 0.08 (for DUIs) or 0.07 (for DWIs), the field sobriety test results can be submitted as further evidence of impairment.

For example, when a driver blows a 0.05 BAC, there is no legal presumption of his impairment or sobriety either way. The only way to prove impairment would be witness testimony, driving behavior, field sobriety test results, or possibly drug test results if the driver was recently in the hospital. These field sobriety tests are far more important in 21-902(c) and 21-902(d) DWI cases where the government is charging a driver of being impaired by drugs or controlled dangerous substances. If the field sobriety tests were not properly conducted, their results should not be considered in deciding impairment.

Having a Maryland DUI attorney who understands and is certified in Standardized Field Sobriety Tests can be the difference between a guilty and not guilty verdict. Please contact us if you are in need of a Maryland DUI lawyer.