Standardized Field Sobriety Tests; the walk & turn test
The Walk & Turn test is a divided attention test that is used as part of the three-test battery of field sobriety tests. The officer will observe your performance on this test, looking for eight (8) clues of impairment. You will be deemed to have failed the test if you present just two (2) of the eight (8) clues. According to NHTSA, the Walk & Turn test is 68% accurate in determining alcohol intoxication above 0.10% BAC (when two or more clues are present). See generally 2006 NHTSA Student Manual, VII-4, VIII 10, et al.
The law enforcement officer will begin the test by asking you to stand with your right foot in front of your left, touching heel to toe. He or she will then begin to give you a series of instructions and demonstrate how the test is to be conducted. This part of the test is commonly referred to as the Instruction Stage. There are two clues that are scored during this preliminary phase:
Clue #1: Cannot Maintain Balance During Instructions
Clue #2: Starts the Test Too Early
The obvious tip here is to listen as best you can to the officer’s instructions. Ask him or her to repeat any instruction that you did not understand as many times as is necessary to be fully informed of what is expected of you. DO NOT BEGIN UNTIL TOLD TO DO SO. This is fundamental and should be one of the easiest parts of the test to comply with.
NOTE: I have seen a number of cases where the subject is taken outside of the range of the cruiser camera to conduct the tests. Take advantage of the recording by talking your way through the test. One client said, “Oh, I stepped off the line because of that passing truck.” Another client demanded explanations when they came to the “turn” portion of the test. Yet another client described the conditions (i.e. cracks in the road, poor shoes, cold, shivering). GIANT CAVEAT: Don’t say things that will hurt your case. Unfortunately, more than one client has met the challenges of the Walk & Turn test by saying, “I can’t do that sober.” Admissions against interest will be used against you.
NOTE: You are being judged on your ability to maintain position. Raising your arms prior to the test will not and cannot be used as a clue. NHTSA specifically instructs that this clue must not be recorded “simply because the subject raises arms or wobbles slightly.” 1995 NHTSA Student Manual, VIII-20; 1995 NHTSA Instructor Manual, VIII-49; 2000 NHTSA Instructor Manual, VIII-42.
The remain clues of the Walk & Turn Test are:
- The Subject Stops While Walking
- The Subject Does Not Touch Heel-to-Toe
- The Subject Steps Off the Line
- The Subject Raises Arms for Balance
- The Subject Turns Improperly
- The Subject Takes the Incorrect Number of Steps
Clue #3: Stops While Walking. In the early versions of the NHTSA Student Manual (1995 NHTSA Student Manual, VIII-20 later omitted) instructed the officer to only record this clue if the subject stopped to steady himself or herself. The officer should also not record a clue if the subject is merely walking slowly or carefully.
Clue #4: Heel to Toe. Would it surprise you to learn that the subject is not required to actually touch heel to toe? According the NHTSA standards, the officer is only to count this clue if a gap of more than one-half inch is present.
Clue #5: Stepping Off the Line: Originally, the officer was required to use an actual designated straight line. 1992 NHTSA Student Manual, VIII-19; 1995 NHTSA Instructor Manual, VIII-41; 2000 NHTSA Instructor Manual, VIII-36, but the “straight line must be clearly visible,” 1992 NHTSA Student Manual, VIII-18. Later versions of the NHTSA Student Manual removed the requirement of an actual designated line and allowed the officer to use an imaginary line. Which raises the following question… “How thick was your imaginary line officer because ours was pretty wide.”
Clue #6: Using Arms for Balance. If you put most human beings on a balance beam and ask them to walk across, the vast majority will instinctively raise their arms to maintain their balance. During the walk and turn test we ask people to turn off this instinct and walk with their arms at their sides. If a subject raises their arms more than six inches, it is used against them. It is vital that the officer be heard giving this instruction as it is so fundamentally awkward. If your client was never told to keep his arms at his or her side, then make sure that they are not “clued” on this portion of the test.
Clue #7: Improper Turn. No other portion of the test is as unfair to a novice subject than the turn. It must be done with precision. More emphasis is placed on how it looks than how it is accomplished. If done with deft balance but improper technique it will be counted against the subject. Make sure the officer instructs the subject properly and make sure the officer demonstrates the turn properly. My experience tells me that defense counsel can use the inherent unfairness of this test to great effect for the defendant.
Clue #8: Improper Number of Steps. It may sound odd, but extreme stress caused by the intimidating presence of an intimidating law enforcement officer can cause people to do strange and amazing things. Some people have a fight or flight response kick in and they run. Other people shut down or pass out or cry. Having viewed numerous videos of good people in this stressful environment, I have seen many people “forget” how to count to nine, mess up the alphabet and say horribly stupid things. The overriding question to ask is whether nerves or intoxication contribute to your client’s missteps. Jurors, in my experience, are willing to give your client great latitude if given a proper context.
Charles M. Rowland II has been defending the accused drunk driver for over fifteen years. He holds numerous certifications in the field of DUI law and is Ohio’s only Forensic Sobriety Assessment certificate holder. He has observed Ohio Standardized Field Sobriety Testing first-hand at the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy and has attended the same training as law enforcement officers in administering and grading the field tests. He has been used by the Police Academy to instruct officers in courtroom motion practice and has been declared an expert in evidential breath testing by the United States government in court martial proceedings. If you need an attorney who will fight for you, Charles Rowland says, “All I do is DUI defense.”