Welcome back to the seventh piece in my ten part blog series on of our Standard Field Sobriety Tests series. The first four posts have focused on optical signs of intoxication and the proper administration of those exams. In the previous two pieces, we looked at the walk and turn test and its instructions, and today we will discuss the walking stage of that exam.
To recap the first component of walk and turn test, known as the Instruction Stage, the officer informs the suspect how to properly complete the walking heel-to-toe exercise and sufficiently demonstrates this. As I mentioned last time, that part is crucial, as it sets the premise for the entire analysis and if the officer does not follow training and procedure during this exchange, it may affect the validity of the entire test.
Taking this further, the second half of this test is known as the Walking Stage. The officer is to explain the test requirements, using verbal instructions, accompanied again by demonstrations. The suspect is informed again, that when told to start, they must take nine heel-to-toe steps, turn around, and take nine heel-to-toe steps back. The officer must demonstrate two or three of these steps for the suspect and explain that when the turn is performed, the suspect must keep the foot on the line and turn by taking a series of small steps. If the officer demonstrates or instructs beginning with the wrong foot, the way a suspect turns will be affected also.
The officer then continues by informing the suspect to keep their arms at their sides while walking, to watch their feet at all times, and to count their steps out loud. They must be told that they cannot stop once they start walking. If the officer does not reiterate the question of understanding or gain an affirmative response, the test may not be scored fairly and properly, thereby invalidating the results.
There are six additional scoring factors that can be observed in the walking stage of this test. First is if the suspect stops while walking to steady themselves. If this occurs, the officer is trained to have the suspect begin from the point of difficulty instead of starting over, as this test loses sensitivity if repeated several times. The suspect must pause for several seconds after one step, and the officer cannot score this item if the suspect is merely walking too slowly.
Another scoring factor is referred to as not touching heel-to-toe. Unfortunately, this can be very subjective. If the suspect leaves more than one-half inch between the heel and toe while walking back and forth, a scoring factor will be assessed. The objective element of this test involves the officer’s judgment in determining this and then remembering the actual distance between heel and toe.
The officer can score a point, as well, if the suspect steps off the line. This means that one of the feet must be entirely off the line and not merely diagonal. Even if the suspect steps off twice, they are only given one point. During the instruction stage, if the suspect sways or uses their arms for balance, a point cannot be scored. A point can, however, be scored if during the walking stage if the suspect raises one or both arms more than six inches from their side in order to maintain balance. If this is noticed to be the normal position of the arms, as in some bodybuilders, the officer is trained to take that into account and be conservative in their scoring. Any benefit of the doubt must be given to the suspect.
The next way a suspect can be given a point is if they lose balance while turning. This item can only be scored if the suspect removes both feet from the line while turning or does not turn as instructed with several small steps, but rather pivots in one movement—as in an about face motion. It is imperative that the officer has demonstrated and articulated this movement properly in order to be scored. It is also important that the officer be conservative in their evaluation of this turn and not be overly critical.
Finally, the last scoring factor is if the suspect takes the incorrect amount of steps. This item is scored only once, even if the incorrect amount of steps is taken in either direction. The suspect was instructed to look down at their feet while performing this stage of the test and to count their steps out loud. But, if they don’t adhere to these instructions, they cannot be scored a point as this is not one of the scoring factors.
There are two ways that the suspect can receive a maximum of eight points on this test: if they step off the line three or more times or if they cannot do the test. If the latter is the case, this must be explained by the officer. In the event the suspect receives two total points or more on this test, the officer is trained to use this as probable cause to believe that the suspect is under the influence of an alcoholic beverage and to make an arrest. The degree of reliability for this test is around 68%, which makes it a pretty good indicator.
Keep in mind that according to our discussion last time, there are certain instances when an officer should not ask a suspect to perform this test. Also, ideal weather conditions must be met to ensure the safety and validity of the results of this exam. In the event you feel you failed this sobriety test because of lack of proper instruction and were charged with a DWI as a result, call me today at (732) 662-7658 to talk about your case. Again, I’m defense attorney Leon Matchin and I have an excellent track record for assisting clients with these charges.
Stop back next week for Part VIII where we will be looking the One Leg Stand assessment in the Standard Field Sobriety Tests.