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Field Sobriety Tests and Common Defense Strategies in Pinellas County, Florida

Melinda Morris
By: Melinda Morris
Jul. 18 2016

Customarily, when a driver is suspected of drunk or impaired driving the law enforcement officer will request the driver submit to Field Sobriety Tests or FSTs. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), FSTs are administered to assist law enforcement in making objective arrest decisions during DUI stops.

The most common FSTs performed include the Horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), the Walk-and-turn, and the One-leg stand test. While NHTSA considers these tests objective and reliable, there are reasons other than impairment or intoxication that an individual may perform poorly on these tests.

Arrests for DUI in Pinellas County, Florida

If arrested for DUI, including First DUI, Prescription Drug DUI, or DUI Property Damage after a failed Field Sobriety Test in Florida, including Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, Sarasota County, Pasco County and Manatee County, it is important to consult an experienced DUI attorney to discuss your legal options.

Drunk or Impaired Driving in Florida

According to Florida Statute § 316.193, an individual driving or in actual physical control of a motor vehicle may be charged with driving under the influence or DUI in the following instances:

  • The person is driving under the influence of alcohol, certain chemical substances, or controlled substances when affected to the extent that the person’s normal faculties are impaired;
  • The person has a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or more grams per 100 milliliters of blood; or
  • The person has a breath-alcohol level of 0.08 or more grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.

The aforementioned statute applies to individuals age 21 and older. Florida has a “zero tolerance” policy for drivers under age 21. Under Florida law, an individual less than 21 years of age may be charged with DUI if he or she has a breath or blood-alcohol concentration of 0.02 or higher.

What to Expect at a DUI Stop in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida

Before and during a DUI stop, a law enforcement officer goes through the following steps:

  1. Phase One – Vehicle observation
    • Officer observes your vehicle while it is in motion, your ability to properly control the vehicle, and then determines whether to stop your vehicle. If the officer decides to stop your vehicle, he or she then observes your stopping sequence.
  2. Phase Two – Personal Contact with you
    • Officer observes and interviews you face to face; asks you to step out of your vehicle; and observes your bodily motions while exiting your vehicle and walking to the back of your vehicle.
  3. Phase Three – Screenings prior to arrest
    • Officer requests you to perform Field Sobriety Tests. The Officer looks for indications of impairment that determine if probable cause exists to have you arrested.
  4. Phase Four – The Arrest
    • If the Officer believes that you are driving while impaired based on his observations, Field Sobriety Tests and related indications of impairment, you will be placed under arrest.
  5. Phase Five – Post arrest screenings
    • Officer requests that you take a breath test to help determine your level of impairment. The breath analysis may be used later at trial.

Common Field Sobriety Tests in Pinellas County, Florida

The most commonly used standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs) by law enforcement are:

  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test- During a horizontal gaze nystagmus or HGN test, the law enforcement officer requests the driver follow a stimulus, usually a pen or a light, horizontally with his or her eyes. The officer is observing the driver’s eyes for nystagmus or involuntary twitching of the eye. While law enforcement and prosecutors assert a nystagmus is evidence of impairment, most people have some degree of natural twitching that occurs even when not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Walk-and-turn test- The walk-and-turn test is a common FST used to test the driver’s coordination and ability to follow instructions. The officer will request the driver to walk in a straight line, heel to toe, and count the steps. After a certain number of steps, the officer will request the driver pivot and walk in the opposite direction, heel to toe.
  • One-leg stand test- During the one-leg stand the law enforcement officer will request the driver stand with both feet together, lift one leg approximately six inches off the ground, and keep both hands at his or her side while counting up to a prescribed number.

Florida Defenses to Field Sobriety Tests

As earlier discussed, an individual may perform poorly during a field sobriety test for several reasons other than impairment or intoxication. The following defenses may be raised during a DUI trial:

  • Age – A person 65 years of age or older may have difficulty performing tests that require a certain level of balance or coordination.
  • Prescription Medication – Certain medications may reduce an individual’s ability to balance and perform simple tasks requested by an officer.
  • Sloped Testing Area – Performing the walk and turn test on a sloped testing area could make it difficult for an individual to reasonably keep his or her balance, thus, yielding inaccurate results.
  • HGN Test and Vision Defects – Most people naturally have a nystagmus or eye twitching; however, an individual’s nystagmus may be amplified by certain vision problems and disorders. Diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and head injuries often cause nystagmus and prevent an individual from successfully completing the HGN Test.
  • Illness, Handicaps, and Injuries-Certain illnesses or handicaps, especially those that affect mobility and dexterity, may cause an individual to perform poorly on multiple field sobriety tests.
  • Poor Coordination – Some people inherently have subpar balance and body mechanics and will perform badly on field sobriety tests even when they are completely sober.
  • Improper Officer Training/Officer Error– An individual may unsatisfactorily perform a FST for several reasons, many of which are medically related. Although the officer may have years of experience conducting DUI stops, he or she may not be adequately trained to positively identify impairment due to alcohol or drugs. Additionally, the Officer may provide instructions to the FSTs improperly.

Field Sobriety Test Refusal in Florida

Under Florida law, a driver is under no obligation to submit to a field sobriety test. However, failure to submit to an FST could result in an arrest. It is important to note the difference between field sobriety tests and chemical tests.
Chemical tests are blood, urine, or breath tests administered to detect alcohol levels. Chemical tests in Florida are mandatory under Florida Statute §316.1932. Failure to submit to chemical testing can result in license suspension for up to one year.  If the individual previously had a driver’s license suspended for failure to submit to chemical testing, the license can be suspended for up to 18 months.

If you have been arrested for DUI following a failed field sobriety test, it is important to consult an experienced DUI attorney. The attorneys of Morris Law Firm are experienced DUI attorneys who zealously defend individuals charged with DUI, DUI with Serious Bodily Injury, DUI with Property Damage, Commercial DUI, and more.

Melinda Morris and Seth Shapiro are co-authors of the book, What You Must Know If You Have Been Arrested for DUI: A Former State Prosecutor’s Guide to DUI Charges in Florida. In this comprehensive guide, the attorneys of Morris Law Firm provide a detailed explanation of the DUI process from initial encounter with law enforcement, chemical testing, arrest, and trial. Request a free-copy of the e-book here.

Contact the Morris Law Firm at (727) 388-4736 or submit an online form to schedule a confidential consultation. The Morris Law Firm strongly advocates for clients throughout the Tampa Bay area of Florida, including Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Gulfport, Largo, and neighboring areas.

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