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Published on 5/23/2023, 4:34:00 AM

Field Sobriety Tests in Maryland DUI Cases | MD DUI SFSTS

If you were recently suspected of drunk driving, chances are that you performed a series of strange tests, which are commonly referred to as Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, or SFSTS for short.

These tests have a long history in criminal law; however, most people have no idea that they are totally voluntary. Although refusals to give breath in DWI and DUI cases can cause additional penalties, SFSTS refusals are not punished. In fact - once you have learned a bit about the tests, chances are you'll never want to participate in them again.

What are SFSTS?

Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTS) are tools used by law enforcement in Maryland to detect signs of impairment and build a case for driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while impaired (DWI). These tests evaluate balance, attention, and eye movements. Despite their name, they're not designed to be "passed" or "failed". Rather, officers are looking for certain "clues" of impairment which are often unknown to the test-taker. The tests are voluntary, and there are no penalties for refusal to participate.

These "tests" are the only test a person is likely to ever take where they don't know how they are graded. The explanations for each test are confusing and are actually designed to divide your attention. This increases the likelihood of displaying "clues".

What is NHSTA?

The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA) is the federal agency that standardizes field sobriety testing in the United States, including Maryland. They mandate that these tests must be administered in the exact same manner every time. However, they're not always conducted perfectly in practice. It's important to note that the HGN test, as stated in the original NHSTA study, is only 77% accurate, and alternative causes for nystagmus are well-documented in scientific literature.

Somehow the tests have gotten "more accurate" in subsequent testing; however, very little about them has really changed since their inception.

HGN: Accuracy and Alternatives

The Horizontal Gaze and Nystagmus (HGN) test is an essential part of the NHSTA's standardized field sobriety tests. The officer is looking for involuntary jerking of the eyes, known as nystagmus, which can indicate "the presence of alcohol in a person's system". However, there are numerous causes for nystagmus beyond alcohol consumption, undermining the test's accuracy.

Horizontal Gaze and Nystagmus (HGN)

The HGN is an eye test where an officer looks for involuntary jerking as you track a slow-moving object like a pen or small flashlight. It's the first field sobriety test usually administered because it's considered reliable by Courts when done correctly. Remember, as per Maryland law, this test is voluntary and refusal to take it carries no additional penalties.

Practically the HGN test is frequently administered on a roadside at night with the possibility of interfereing Police Lights and passing traffic. Officers often blast flashlights in their subject's face, and improperly count and time their passes. Stimuli vary from fingers to pens to pen lights.

When a fact finder other than a Judge (like a jury) hears how the test is meant to be understood, many discount its supposed "accuracy".

How many HGN clues are there

There are six total "clues" in the HGN test, three for each eye. They are:

  • Lack of Smooth Pursuit
  • Onset of Nystagmus prior to 45 degrees
  • Distinct and sustained nystagmus at maximum deviation

Walk and Turn (W&T)

The Walk and Turn (W&T) test involves walking heel-to-toe along a straight line, turning on one foot, and then walking back the same way. Officers are looking for signs of imbalance, incorrect number of steps, or inability to follow instructions, all of which can indicate some effect on a person's motor coordination. It's another voluntary test under Maryland law.

Why is the walk and turn test hard to beat?

The instructions are often confusing, as an officer typically places a person in the "instructional phase" which involves placing feet in a row and maintinaing the position. This is meant to divide a subjects attention from the actual instructions, which then only consist of three of the nine steps being displayed.

The test is usually administered on the side of a busy roadway at night. While this test involves walking on a straight line, Officers can tell a person to "imagine a line" when there are no safe road lines for a person to walk on. This can result in an officer finding that a person "stepped off the line" when there isn't even a line! They'd have to be a mind reader to tell where an imaginary line is!

To top if all off - the test requires one of the strangest "turns", where a lead foot is placed on the ground and the trailing foot must make several small steps around it. No one ever gets the turn correctly, because it is such an un-natural movement.

How many Walk and Turn clues are there

There are eight total "clues" in the walk in turn test. It's important to remember that a test subject has multiple opportunities to display these clues during the testing. The clues are:

  1. Cannot keep balance while listening to the instructions

  2. Starts too soon

  3. Stops while walking

  4. Does not touch heel-to-toe

  5. Steps off the line

  6. Uses arm(s) to balance

  7. Improper turn

  8. Incorrect number of steps

One Leg Stand (OLS)

In the One Leg Stand (OLS) test, you're instructed to stand with one foot about six inches off the ground and count aloud by thousands for 30 seconds. Officers look for signs of swaying, hopping, putting your foot down, or using your arms to balance, which could suggest impairment. Once again, this test is voluntary in Maryland.

As with all of the other field tests, subjects are not told what the clues are and how they are being graded. For example, the instructions include the phrase "Keep your arms at your sides at all times and keep watching the raised foot.". What they don't say is that raising your arms more than six inches from your body is a "clue". It's unnatural to keep your arms hugging your side, and the instructions don't tell you that if you move your arms away from your body its an issue.

Further, the instructions don't tell you not to "hop", nor do they tell you not to sway. These are both "clues" however.

How many One Leg Stand Clues are there?

There are four clues in the one leg stand. They are:

  1. The subject sways while balancing

  2. Uses arm(s) to balance

  3. Hopping

  4. Puts foot down

What does NHSTA say about OLS test conditions?

According to NHSTA "whenever possible, the OLS test should be conducted on a reasonably dry, hard, level, and non-slippery surface." They also say that "that varying environmental conditions have not affected a subject�s ability to perform this test." So according to the NHSTA doing the OLS on an incline in the rain at night is just as relaible as doing it during the day on a dry level surface.
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What is a divided attention test?

According to the NHSTA, a divided attention test is defined as "A test which requires the subject to concentrate on both mental
and physical tasks at the same time. The two psychophysical tests Walk and Turn (WAT) and
One Leg Stand (OLS) require the subject to divide their attention."

Can I Refuse Field Sobriety in Maryland?

Yes, you can refuse to participate in field sobriety tests in Maryland. These tests are voluntary, and there are no penalties for refusing to perform them. Refusal might be a reasonable consideration given that these tests are tools used by officers to justify an arrest.

Can I Pass Field Sobriety?

Field sobriety tests are not pass/fail exams. Rather, they serve as tools for officers to detect clues of impairment. They are graded based on cues that are often unknown to the person taking the test. It's entirely possible to display these cues without realizing it.

Maryland DUI/DWI Penalties

DUI/DWI penalties in Maryland typically involve fines and jail time. Second and Third offense DUIs carry enhanced penalties.

How do I avoid points on my license?

If you receive probation before judgment (PBJ), you will avoid a conviction and there will be no points assessed against your license. However, you could still face fines or jail time before starting your probation.

Considerations in DUI/DWI Cases in Maryland

When evaluating a DUI/DWI case in Maryland, several factors come into play. These include:

  1. Evidence: This includes body-worn camera footage, witness testimonies, and any admissions or denials of alcohol consumption by the accused.

  2. Field Sobriety Administration: How the officer administered the field sobriety tests can impact the case. As stated before, these tests must be conducted as outlined in the NHSTA training.

  3. Presence of Alcohol: If alcohol is detected in the vehicle or on the person, this could be used as evidence of impairment. If you took an alcohol breath test, you might be charged with DUI per se. If your breath was under the limit you can still be charged with DUI/DWI

  4. Prior Offenses: Any previous DUI/DWI convictions can impact the penalties and outcomes of the current case.

Next Steps If Charged With DUI/DWI in Maryland

If you're facing a DUI/DWI charge in Maryland and wondering how to beat a DUI in Maryland, consider the following:

  1. Consult Legal Professionals: Reach out to several Maryland DUI law firms. Speak with Maryland DUI Lawyers about their experience in DUI cases and trials. Initial consultations should generally be free.

  2. Understand Your Case: Familiarize yourself with the potential penalties and implications of a DUI/DWI conviction. Refer to resources like the FrizWoods First DUI FAQ for information.

In conclusion, while facing a DUI/DWI charge in Maryland can be daunting, understanding the nuances of the field sobriety tests and securing competent legal representation can increase your chances of a more favorable outcome. Consult with an attorney today to decide if a DUI jury trial is in your best interests.