Can The Walk And Turn Test Be Beat?
The Walk and Turn test is the second test that an officer will generally administer to someone that they suspect of driving while intoxicated. What the officer is looking for is the suspect’s ability to listen to a set of complicated instructions and perform the tasks as instructed. There are two phases to the test. In each phase the officer is looking for “clues” of impairment. If a suspect receives two clues or more during the entire test then they “fail” the test. The two phases of the test and the clues the officer is looking for during that phase are as follows:
What the officer is supposed to do: The officer is supposed to give the following instructions and demonstrate the proper way to perform the test. The officer should tell the suspect to;
- Imagine a straight line;
- Place your right foot on the line ahead of your left foot, with the heal of your right foot against the toe of your left foot;
- Place your arms down at your sides;
- Maintain this position “instructional position” until the officer has completed the instructions. Do not start the test until instructed to do so;
- Ask the suspect if they understand the instructions so far;
- Wait until the suspect answers that they do understand;
- Tell the suspect that when the officer tells them to begin they are to take (9) nine heal to toes steps on the line, turn by taking a series of small steps with their other foot; (officer should display how to walk and make the turn) then take nine heal to toe steps back along the same line.
- The officer should tell the suspect that while they are walking they should keep their arms at their sides, watch their feet at all times, and count their steps out loud.
- The officer should tell the suspect that one they begin walking they should not stop until the test is completed.
- The officer should then ask the suspect if he or she understand the instructions.
What the suspect is supposed to do:
The instructional phase is the time when the suspect can ask questions from the officer. The three things that the suspect should be cognizant of are; 1) make sure to understand the officer’s instructions, 2) maintaining balance while in the instructional phase and 3) begin the test only after instructed to do so by the officer.
What clues the officer is looking for:
There are only two clues that an officer can count against someone in the instructional phase.
1) Beginning the test before instructed to do so.
2) Failure to maintain balance while listening to the instructions.
Common mistakes officers make:
Interpretation: Officers often forget that the “clues” in the standard field sobriety test need to be evaluated in context. Just because a suspect technically does not perform the test correctly does not mean that they are intoxicated. Some “clues” although exhibited, may have another explanation. If an officer rigidly applies the standards in the field sobriety test when another explanation for the exhibited behavior is clear, then an officer can lose credibility. “The test is not a pass/fail test it is only for the officer to see signs of impairment.” (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 46 or 62)
Timing: The instructional phase is supposed to be quick, usually 40 seconds or less is adequate time to explain the test and ask the suspect if they understand. Officers forget that the person is in the “instructional position” with their left foot in front of their right foot while they are listening to the instructions. Every second that an officer drags on the instructions is one more chance for the suspect to get out of the instructional position. The more time the officer takes the more likely the suspect is to get out of the position and the officer can then give the suspect a clue.
Improperly scoring a “failure to maintain balance while listening to the instructions.” clue:
It is common for a suspect to wiggle, shift their weight or something similar while they are in the instructional position. Common sense tells us that most people will make some sort of movement when placed in a specific position for an extended period of time. The test allows for some movement while in the instructional phase. Officers will sometimes remove that ability to move at all during the test. Officers will do this by giving an incorrect clue of “failure to maintain balance while in the instructional phase”. An officer will claim any movement is failure to maintain balance. Officers forget that the Standard Field Sobriety Test NHTSA manual requires that an officer can only validly clue the suspect if the suspect “breaks stance,” a simple movement of the arms to maintain balance or swaying back and forth is not enough to validly clue the suspect. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 44 or 62)
Improperly scoring a clue for “beginning the test to early”:
This usually happens when an officer either forgets to ask the suspect if they understand the instructions after the officer puts the suspect in the instructional position or if the officer forgets to tell the person not to begin the test until instructed to do so. If an officer makes either of those mistakes they cannot validly clue the suspect for beginning the test too early.
Test Interpretation Phase:
What the officer is supposed to do:
The officer is supposed to observe the suspect only. They are not to give the suspect additional instructions or correct them in any way. The officer is supposed to apply the standards in the NHTSA manual in a common sense approach to determine if the suspect is impaired.
What the suspect is supposed to do:
The suspect has a difficult task. The suspect has to remember the complicated set of instructions and perform the tasks as requested. The suspect must do all of these things under the added pressure of being in an unfamiliar location in a stressful situation.
What the officer is looking for:
Suspect does not touch heal to toe: The tolerable range is ½ inch. If the feet do not actually touch heal-to-toe they cannot be farther than ½ inch from each other during the test. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 45 of 62)
Suspect steps off line: The suspect must step completely off the line for the clue to be valid. The entire foot must be off the line. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 45 of 62)
Suspect uses arms to balance: If the suspect uses their arms to maintain balance they should be given a clue only if they meet the standard. The standard to issue a clue is that the arm must be raised more than 6 inches from the body. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 45 of 62)
Suspect stops during the test: The suspect must not stop during the test. If the suspect stops at any time they can be issued a clue. Officers must not issue a clue if the suspect is merely walking very slowly. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 45 of 62)
Suspect makes an improper turn: The clue should only be given if the suspect removes their foot from the line while turning, if the suspect did not perform the turn as instructed, or if the suspect loses balance while turning. (an incorrect turn is to pivot or spin) (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 45 of 62)
Suspect takes an incorrect number of steps: This clue can be recorded if the suspect takes an incorrect number of steps in either direction. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 45 of 62)
Common mistakes officers make:
Test conditions: The walk and turn test should be conducted on a reasonably dry, hard, level, -non-slippery surface. There should be sufficient room for subjects to perform the tests. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 41 of 62). If an officer requests that a suspect perform the tests in an area where the environment is not acceptable they are not following the NHTSA guidelines.
The Suspect’s Age: If the suspect is over the age of 65 the research indicates that the suspect will have difficulty with the test regardless of their consumption of alcohol. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 41 of 62). An officer should not administer the SFST battery to an individual over the age of 65.
The Suspect’s Physical Condition: If the suspect has back, leg, or inner ear problems the suspect will have difficulty with the test regardless of their consumption of alcohol. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 41 of 62). An officer should not administer the SFST battery to an individual with those physical problems.
The Suspect’s footwear: If a suspect is wearing heels more than 2 inches high they should be given the opportunity to remove their shoes when performing the SFST battery. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 41 of 62) If an officer fails to give the suspect the option to remove their heels the officer is operating outside of the NHTSA guidelines.
Clue the suspect for Not Counting Steps Out Loud: Officers will sometimes clue the suspect improperly for not counting out loud as they take each step. Although “counting aloud each step” is an instruction. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 43 of 62). Failing to count out loud is not a clue.
Clue the suspect for Not Watching their Feet: Officers will sometimes clue the suspect improperly for not watching their feet during the test. Although “keep watching your feet” is an instruction. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 43 of 62). Failing to watch your feet is not a clue.
Giving Instruction During the Performance of the Test:
The officers forget that one of the most important part of the Standard Field Sobriety Tests is the first word, “Standard.” The test is standardized, it must be given the same way every time if the officer intends to rely on the perceived results. The officer is not authorized to instruct a suspect while they are taking the test. For example, an officer cannot tell the suspect to make sure to “count out loud” if the suspect stops counting. If an officer does this then the officer is introducing an additional stimulus to the test. Therefore, making the test more complicated and invalidating the results.
Problems with the Walk and Turn Test
Officer Mistakes: As you can see above there are ample opportunities for an officer to make a mistake in either instructing the suspect on how to perform the test or make a mistake on how to interpret the results of the test. In all aspects of field sobriety testing these two problems are by far and away the most common reasons that people get falsely accused of DUI.
Reliability: There are Four studies and one data point that are cited to back up the Walk and Turn Test.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Participant Manual cites “recent research” that indicates an accuracy of 79% for the Walk and Turn test. (2013 Participant Manual Session 8, Page 47 of 62).
Southern California Research Institute Study
The original research conducted by the Southern California Research Institute that was used to develop the Standard Field Sobriety Test curriculum indicated that the Walk and Turn test was 68% accurate at detecting subjects at or above a .10 BAC. This study is aimed at detecting an alcohol concentration that is higher than the legal limit. It was performed nearly 40 years ago and has an abysmal accuracy rating. (This study is not available online)
Validation of SFST at BAC below 0.10 (San Diego Study)
This study was finalized in 1998. It is a relatively small sample size of 297 motorists. The study claims 79% accuracy rate for arrests decisions based on the Walk and Turn test.
A Colorado Validation Study of the SFST Battery.
This study was finalized in 1995. This study had a sample size of 305 participants. The study claims an 86% accuracy when administering all three tests.
A Florida Validation Study of the SFST Battery.
This study was finalized in 1997. This study had a sample size of 256 breath tests. The study claims 95% accuracy when administering all three tests.
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