Sobering Sobriety Tests
January 25, 2005 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Soooo, in the last 6 months, I've been pulled over twice for 'Suspicion of drunk driving', both times I've been given a field sobriety test and failed, both times I've subsequently blown a 0.0, because I was stone cold sober. What exactly is the field sobriety looking for? Why am I failing?

Some more information, both times were really late at night when I was really tired.
posted by patrickje to Law & Government (32 answers total)
 
You're failing because you were too tired. Some of the aspects of being drunk--slow reaction time, inability to balance, etc--are quite similar to what happens when you're tired. The police, most likely, pulled you over because you were displaying symptoms of driving drunk due to your fatigue. Swerving, perhaps stoping too soon, driving too slowly, etc. Which field sobriety tests were you given, since there are several. You could try practicing them at home. Or just stop driving when you're that tired.
posted by skynxnex at 12:03 PM on January 25, 2005


You failed the field sobriety tests because they're designed to make you fail. More here.

Demand the breathalyzer every time.
posted by sellout at 12:05 PM on January 25, 2005


It's not you that's failing, it's the testing that's failing. You're impaired due to fatigue, making mistakes obvious enough to get you pulled over. To answer your question, I don't think you can "fail" a field sobriety test; these are just routines the police go through to confirm your impairment for purposes of deciding whether to move to the next step, which is to test your BAC. You're doing badly enough on the field sobriety test, or alternatively, you're driving so poorly, that the police are opting to go ahead and test your blood.

For your sake, and the sake of others on the road, please consider pulling over into a parking lot and taking a 15 minute snooze in the front seat. It will make a world of difference.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:06 PM on January 25, 2005


What exactly is the field sobriety looking for?

Probable cause to arrest you, and evidence against you. Don't take voluntary field sobriety tests!
posted by Sirius at 12:06 PM on January 25, 2005


If you were very fatigued, your driving may have been erratic. You may have been drifting into other lanes and then quickly correcting, driving under the minimum speed limit or doing other things that raise suspicion. Field sobriety tests are looking at your balance, your ability to focus at the task on hand, and your spatial relations judgement. i'm sure there are other things the police are testing for, but that's what comes to mind.

Driving when you're very tired can be as dangerous as driving drunk because your ability to respond to sudden changes, like the driver in front of you jacking on his brakes, is reduced. There is also the risk that you'll fall asleep behind the wheel. Lots of ugly possibilities.
posted by onhazier at 12:07 PM on January 25, 2005


This is a bit of a pessimistic perspective, culled from several friends who have been pulled over, as well as many web pages on the subject (most of which seem to be posted by DUI defense attorneys... hmm), but the conventional wisdom is that they're not looking for anything, except any tiny little excuse to get you in the back seat blowing into a tube.

This site (definitely one of those attorneys I was talking about -- check the domain name) says the tests are "designed to fail", by which I think it means, designed for YOU to fail. A lot of the stuff like walking heel-to-toe or saying the alphabet backwards, is counter-intuitive and if you try it quickly (because you don't want to "look drunk" by putting a lot of effort into it) is easy to screw up, at least a little.

Then when you do, the cops have "probable cause" to suspect you of drunk driving and compel you to take a breath test -- which you apparently passed. Ostensibly, the "field tests" are voluntary. I'd love to see someone say to an officer "you know, I work late and I'm really tired, but I haven't had a single drink all day. Can we skip over the field tests and I'll voluntarily take the breath test, just to get this over with?" just to see what the cop would say. Of course, it just seems like an intuitively bad idea to mess with an officer in this situation, so I can't say I'd necessarily do it.

Anyway, the short answer is, I doubt you're doing anything wrong; the cops just want to make you dance a little bit so that they can justify having BAC'd you if you are drunk and proceed to trial.

On preview, onhazier is right that you shouldn't drive while extremely tired, either. But it's not illegal per se unless you're doing it dangerously.
posted by rkent at 12:14 PM on January 25, 2005


Yeah, the laws against drunk driving aren't there to punish you for partaking of the devil's brew; they're in place to make sure that people manipulating tons of deadly high speed metal are in a condition to properly control the machines.

It shouldn't really make a difference whether your inability to effectively drive is due to drink or fatigue, except insofar as you might not know how tired you are, whereas it's easy to know if you've impaired capacities by keeping track of how much you've imbibed & how much time has passed. Try to make other arrangements or get a little rest if you realize you're fatigued.
posted by mdn at 12:14 PM on January 25, 2005


So is it possible then if I do get pulled over in the future, to say, "Just give me the breathalyzer, I'm sober" without having to go through 10-15 minutes of calisthenics for the officer.
posted by patrickje at 12:42 PM on January 25, 2005


How can three people link to the same URL on drunk driving scams? Spammed or spamming?
posted by Peter H at 12:46 PM on January 25, 2005


Asking to skip the breathalyzer is of course possible, but as rkent says above: do you really want to risk the appearance of sassing the officer who has the potential to make your night a lot worse? Plus, anything perceived as sass or belligerence might be considered evidence of intoxication.
posted by handful of rain at 12:47 PM on January 25, 2005


You don't have to sass him.

"Sir, I have not been drinking I'm just very tired. I'll be happy to cooperate but if you want to speed things up and start with the breathalyzer you'll see that I'm perfectly sober."

Your chances will be best if you act polite, calm, and respectful.
posted by bondcliff at 12:59 PM on January 25, 2005


Peter H: I was pretty impressed, too. I for one can promise that I'm not spamming (of course I don't assert that the others are). In my case, it was the first Google result for "field sobriety test". At least I acknowledged that it's the work of defense lawyers :)
posted by rkent at 1:00 PM on January 25, 2005


So is it possible then if I do get pulled over in the future, to say, "Just give me the breathalyzer, I'm sober" without having to go through 10-15 minutes of calisthenics for the officer.

Yes, that is exactly what you should do. Like refusing to let the police voluntarily search your car or house (even if you have nothing to hide), you shouldn't make it easy for them to find probable cause to arrest you.

How can three people link to the same URL on drunk driving scams?

It is the second link on Google for "field sobriety test", and gives the reasons you shouldn't take field sobriety tests.

On preview:

do you really want to risk the appearance of sassing the officer who has the potential to make your night a lot worse? Plus, anything perceived as sass or belligerence might be considered evidence of intoxication.

You don't have to be sassy. I've refused car searches and wouldn't be worried about refusing field sobriety tests. I just matter of factly told the officer he couldn't search my car, asked him if I was free to go, was told yes, then I left with no problems at all. Police officers take advantage of people's ignorance of their rights all the time, it is just silly to help them get more evidence against you when you don't have to.
posted by Sirius at 1:01 PM on January 25, 2005


As far as i know the sobriety tests are psychological. Being nervous at being caught drinking by cops makes you fail more than the drinking would. That's why you can walk a straight line, piss drunk, in front of your friends. The psychedelic atmosphere of flashing lights and sunglasses and moustaches and natural citizen/law wariness makes for a completely different environment. So if you were nervous anyway, or for another reason, over overly aware that every little jiggle you make can be construed very badly for you, you'd probably fail.

Overcome your nerves, ask if you can do a couple jumping jacks first maybe, look into the sunglasses and smile winningly, these things might help.

Side note: Apparently the normal citizen response to having a patrol car pull up next to them is to idly glance over (natural citizen to law curiosity) and then go back to your business (cause you are law abiding and not worried). Not looking at the cop at all is as suspicious as nervously looking, and looking again ... they are a tricky bunch. Practice your nonchalant glance :)
posted by 31d1 at 1:08 PM on January 25, 2005


About three years ago, this happened to me. I was looking for an apartment in another town, driving there after work to look at places with my future roommate, sometimes having a beer to discuss the apartment(s) we'd just looked at, and then driving home.

One night, after a long day of work, checking out an apartment, two beers, and some lively conversation (which is better: The Who's "The Who Sell Out" or the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's"?), I made the drive back. A long time had passed since the two beers, so I was stone-cold sober but a car I passed on the highway started tailgating me for about 20 miles, and when I got to the next town, a cop pulled me over. Apparently the fellow tailgating me had called 911 on a cell phone and reported me as "all over the road".

I explained my day to the officer, and told him that yes I had been drinking, but some time had passed so more than anything I was just tired and wanted to get home and get some sleep. He said I'd been swerving all over the road in town, which was partially true - the highway through the town has many vicious potholes, and I adjust to avoid them every time I drive through.

Anyway, he put me through the heel-to-toe walking test on an uneven slope, and did the flashlight-in-the-eyes test, then made me blow into the tube. It came up 0.0 ("Just what I thought!" he ejaculated).

My hypothesis is that you can't pass these tests, ever. No matter how well your eyes follow the flashlight, no matter how well you put heel to toe, they're going to make you take the breathalyzer. The reason for the field tests is to establish probable cause for taking the breathalyzer, maybe.
posted by rocketman at 1:12 PM on January 25, 2005


I've read that the number one thing cops look for people miss is making wide turns. In other words, you turn right or left and end up swooping out into the other lane. So maybe you were doing that.
posted by atchafalaya at 1:41 PM on January 25, 2005


You have nothing to lose by refusing the Field Sobriety test unless, of course, it's mandated by law. I know of no place where it is. In Arizona you have everything (your license) to lose by refusing to give a blood and/or urine sample after being arrested for DUI since they will always get a warrant and take it from you anyway.

I suppose it's just best to know the law in your state before being in that situation.
posted by whatisish at 2:13 PM on January 25, 2005


I have often wondered why the U.S. police don't just breathalyze to start with?

In Australia, (from experience and what I have heard) if you are pulled over, the first thing they do is give you a breathalyzer test.
posted by tomble at 2:36 PM on January 25, 2005


Just be careful in saying, "I'm just really tired". In some jurisdictions, that is subject to the "driving while impaired" statute as is certain cold medicine and other medications too.

It is the *impaired* part that is liable for prosecution, not necessarily the method of impairment.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 2:48 PM on January 25, 2005


Tomble : that power/right gets abused by the police all the time too.

Many years ago, when I was younger & much sillier, I got pulled over after accelerating from a set of lights and speeding past a parked cop car. (No excuse - I knew he was there, I saw him while I was stopped - I just forgot!)

Anyway, while I was blowing in the bag, the booze-bus pulled up. The cop had already decided I was drunk, and had called them before he'd even gotten out of the car.

He was very disappointed that I blew .00 ...
posted by Pinback at 2:50 PM on January 25, 2005


I have often wondered why the U.S. police don't just breathalyze to start with?

In Australia, (from experience and what I have heard) if you are pulled over, the first thing they do is give you a breathalyzer test.


I was wondering the same thing. Surely a breathalyzer test is less invasive and quicker than being made to perform like a monkey?
posted by chill at 3:03 PM on January 25, 2005


Patrick, if you've been pulled over more than once because you're so tired that the cops think you're drunk... for gods sake STOP DRIVING while you're that tired. You are going to kill someone. Maybe yourself, maybe others. Driving while very tired is about as bad as driving while moderately intoxicated in terms of impairment.

It's just not cool.
posted by Justinian at 3:08 PM on January 25, 2005 [1 favorite]


because a breathalyzer is a search and US police (theoretically, at least) may not conduct a search without a warrant, absent a (again, theoretically) narrow set of exigent circumstances, including reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has been committed. thus, field sobriety tests are "voluntary" and lay the foundation for the warrantless search (& attendant seizure) that is a breathalyzer test.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:08 PM on January 25, 2005


for gods sake STOP DRIVING while you're that tired. You are going to kill someone

[echo...]
posted by five fresh fish at 3:12 PM on January 25, 2005


One of my first newspaper jobs was overnights on the city desk, midnight to 8 AM shift. Oh my God. When I drove home in the morning, sometimes I was truly impaired. Looking back, I can remember several moments where I glazed out for long, long moments after the light turned, or popped back to awareness just as the car was rambling off the road. I was only eighteen and didn't know from anything; just wanted to get home and sleep. I'm surprised I didn't kill myself or someone else.

And in the fifteen years of regular drinking that have followed, never, ever have I been made as dangerous by my drinking as I was by that overnight-working fatigue. You'd have to be stupid, crazy drunk to equal such a compromised mental state.

I agree with all those who beg you to stop driving this way. Right after I ended that job, my best friend's mother (an overnight nurse) fell asleep at the wheel, rolled her car at 50 mph, and was put back together during a long and painful 8 days in the ICU. I'm surprised you weren't cited for reckless driving, or driving to endanger, even with the .00. You must live in a lenient state.

Whatever it is, please stop driving like this. Even 5-10 minutes of shuteye, pulled over at the side of the road, is enough to perk a driver up enough to continue. Please do it. I don't want to be the person driving toward you in the other lane.
posted by Miko at 3:21 PM on January 25, 2005


There was a high profile example of why you shouldn't drive tired in the UK a couple of years ago.
posted by chill at 3:24 PM on January 25, 2005


because a breathalyzer is a search and US police (theoretically, at least) may not conduct a search without a warrant, absent a (again, theoretically) narrow set of exigent circumstances, including reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has been committed. thus, field sobriety tests are "voluntary" and lay the foundation for the warrantless search (& attendant seizure) that is a breathalyzer test.

Well, that and the fact that you agree to forfeit your license if you refuse a breathalyzer test.
posted by oaf at 3:44 PM on January 25, 2005


More on driving while tired.

Drivers.com: Sleepless in New Jersey -- it could make you a criminal
posted by filmgeek at 5:13 PM on January 25, 2005


Filmgeek: Great link...I've been saying for some time that people who drive when they're tired should be charged under impaired driving laws (in truth it kind of irks me that cops would see patrickje driving erratically and let him continue doing so just because he's not drunk). Hopefully laws like this will spread.
posted by duck at 7:05 PM on January 25, 2005


I've heard that in some states you can get a Driving While Impaired if you're impaired because you're tired. But I'm too tired to do the research to back up my claim. Can we just skip to the breathalizer, officer?
posted by Doohickie at 7:24 PM on January 25, 2005


When I was young and foolish I drove very, very tired and was pulled over as a suspected drunk. This was the first time I'd been pulled over and I was very freaked out about the possibility of going to jail--although I was as sober as I've ever been--it was up to this (perhaps unscrupulous) cop's judgement where I would spend the night.

I did a mediocre job on the various roadside tests. The cop kept telling me not to be afraid and that he wouldn't hurt me... so I ran with it and acted like I thought he might hurt me. Anyway, he was sure I'd been doing drugs, and I kept insisting that I hadn't, and he let me go with a warning. No blow job was even requested (the breathalyzer kind, that is) (no, not the other kind either).

So, lessons learned:
1. Don't drive sleepy
2. Act terrified: some cops apparently have an ounce of humanity in their filthy, black, rocky hearts, or at least feel better about themselves by scaring people
3. Sometimes you can pass field sobriety tests
posted by jewzilla at 8:14 PM on January 25, 2005


3. Sometimes you can pass field sobriety tests

Years ago, I got pretty trashed at a restaurant with some friends, around 7pm. I went to the coffee shop a few stores down until they closed at midnight, then sat in the parking lot talking to a friend until about 3:30am, when I was quite sure I was sober. We got in my car, and right then a cop pulls up. "What are you doing here so late?"

I was polite and told him exactly what happened - I'd had drinks from 7-9, then stayed here until I was quite certain I was sober and could drive. He asked me to take a sobriety test, I said no problem, took it, passed it, he drove off and I drove home.

So yeah, sometimes you can. Be polite, be respectful. I get pulled over relatively frequently, being a motorcyclist and all, and I've never had a problem with an officer. I've gotten speeding tickets, sure, but I've never been breathalyzed.
posted by cactus at 12:06 AM on January 26, 2005


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