Field Sobriety Test in Massachusetts

It can happen to anyone, you’re driving home when suddenly you see lights in your rearview mirror. You pull over and the officer asks you to step out of the vehicle for a field sobriety test. Most likely worries will start filling your mind. Am I going to jail? Will my license be suspended? It is important to understand what a field sobriety test is and how it works, so you can be calm and prepared if you find yourself in this situation. 

Field Sobriety Test

When Is Field Sobriety Testing Used?

Most people assume a field sobriety test is conducted in order to determine if someone is driving under the influence. In actuality, when a police officer requests that you partake in these tests, they have most likely already decided to arrest you for driving under the influence. They simply may have seen you swerve a little or even think you’re being a reckless driver. The point of having you participate in the field sobriety test is to gather as much evidence as they can that you are in fact driving under the influence of alcohol or another controlled substance. This evidence will be used in a court of law to help the prosecution secure a conviction against you.

How Do Field Sobriety Tests Work?

Most police departments are going to use a standardized field sobriety test. These tests are designed to measure motor skills, ability to operate a vehicle, follow directions, and do more than one thing at once. Failure to succeed during these tests will be used as evidence to support the accusation that a driver is under the influence. There are three tests that most police officers will use, as they are standardized by the federal government.

Nine Step Walk and Turn

This test consists of the motorist taking nine steps out in a straight line, at which point they must turn around and take an additional nine steps back to their starting position. The steps taken must be “heel-to-toe” and the motorist must not deviate from a straight line. Additionally, arms cannot be used for balance and must remain within six inches of the motorist’s sides. 

One Leg Stand

The one leg stand can be the most difficult test, as it requires a level of fitness to successfully complete. The motorist must raise one foot, six inches from the ground while counting to thirty. The officer will look to see if the motorist uses their arms for balance, sways, puts their foot down early, or hops to maintain balance. Any of these will be seen as evidence of driving under the influence.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

This test involves the officer moving an object, often a pen, back and forth in front of the motorists face. The motorist is instructed to follow the object with their eyes. The officer is looking for any involuntary or abnormal eye movements, also known as nystagmus, in the motorist. The presence of nystagmus will be seen as evidence of driving under the influence.

Can You Refuse a Field Sobriety Test?

In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a motorist has the right to refuse to participate in a field sobriety test. This can simply be done by informing the officer that you do not consent to participation in the test. 

What Happens If You Refuse a Field Sobriety Test?

The refusal to participate in the field sobriety test cannot be used as evidence of driving under the influence if you go to court. However, after you refuse to participate in the test, an officer can still arrest you for driving under the influence as long as they believe they have sufficient evidence to do so.

Massachusetts Laws for Field Sobriety Tests

In the state of Massachusetts, only field sobriety tests that have been standardized by the federal government can be used as evidence of driving under the influence. These include the one leg stand, the nine step walk and turn, and the horizontal gaze test, as mentioned above. However, there is no law in Massachusetts that states you are required to participate in these tests. You are legally entitled to refuse participation in these tests without fear of any legal consequences.   

Does a Field Sobriety Test Always Lead to Conviction?

A field sobriety test does not always lead to a conviction. In fact some lawyers feel that a field sobriety test can actually help to have your DUI charges dropped, especially if you complete all of the tests successfully without any indication that you are under the influence. However, even if the officer judges that you have failed the test, that does not mean a conviction will definitely happen. This is good news, as a DUI will stay on your record for life in Massachusetts. 

Errors in Field Sobriety Tests

Field sobriety tests are not foolproof. Even if the prosecution believes the results of the field sobriety test prove you were driving under the influence, your attorney can refute this by pointing out errors in the tests. Many attorneys will use this tactic in a DUI defense. An example of this would be how the tests are unfair to people in poor physical condition. Your attorney can argue that you could not complete the test, not because of inebriation, but because of a lack of physical strength or an old injury. Your attorney could also point out errors in the administration of the test stemming from weather conditions. For example, if it was extremely cold out or rainy, making it difficult to complete the tasks successfully. Finally, your attorney could point out errors the officer made while scoring the test. A common error officers make is saying you used your arms for balance, even though your arms were still within six inches of your body, which is allowed. Any of these errors can be brought up in court to refute the results of your field sobriety test. 



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