Austin, TX

How to Pass Standard Field Sobriety Tests

How to pass Standard Field Sobriety Tests? 

How can you pass your SFSTs?  You Can’t! (sorry for the clickbait title) Why?  Because it’s not a pass/fail test.  Police will tell you this if you ask.  You can think of it as a way for the police to get an intoxicated person on video doing intoxicated things for the jury.  They are basically making a documentary on you.  So in that sense, you can fail, but not pass.


It really is that simple.  It’s not a scientific process but the prosecutors and police want it to SEEM like a science. Because if it’s a science, it can be evidence in court.  Police officers basically take 8 hour classes and then refresher classes to become an expert on this supposedly scientific way of determining whether someone is intoxicated.  They are looking for “clues” of intoxication.


There are 3 (sometimes 4) tests that are typically used.

HGN Test

The first is the HGN test or Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test.  This refers to a jerkiness of the pupil as t goes side-to-side.  This is the test where the officer asks you to follow his pen or some other object with your eyes.  Some people will think the officer is looking to see if you can track the pen, but they’re really just looking to see if your eye is sort of stuttering as it goes back and forth.  Jerkiness is a “clue” of intoxication.  Usually, an officer will find this “clue” to be present and there is usually no way to contest their observation since nystagmus is not usually picked up on camera. 


Walk and Turn Test

Next, we look at the walk and turn test.  The officer asks you to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, in an imaginary straight line.  There are 8 clues.

  1. if the suspect cannot keep his or her balance during instructions,
  2. starts too soon,
  3. stops while walking,
  4. doesn’t touch heel-to-toe,
  5. steps off the line,
  6. uses arms to balance,
  7. performs improper turn or turns incorrectly, or
  8. takes an incorrect amount of steps.

Most people will exhibit at least one or two clues sober.  Add to that that these tests are performed under terrible conditions – outside, on the side of the road, in the rain, in the cold, with an officer breathing down your neck, and you can see that the clues are going to add up – even with sober drivers.


Additionally, the instructions are often spit out rapid fire.  So if you don’t hear the right number of steps as the officer explains the test, you will get that clue almost automatically.  The officer will usually get annoyed if you ask him to clarify what counts as the first step even though that’s a matter of interpretation


One Leg Stand

Next is the one leg stand, which is another one I would challenge you to do completely sober.

Officers ask you to stand on one leg for 30 seconds.

While the test is being performed, the officer is looking for four clues: (1) putting your foot down before the test is completed; (2) swaying while trying to maintain your balance; (3) hopping while trying to maintain your balance; and (4) using your arms to help maintain your balance.


Even in the best of times, studies show that this test has a 65% chance of determining intoxication correctly.  Consider that 1/3 of test takers will be misidentified by this test, even in lab conditions.  Now, in the elements, with pressure on, the chance of messing up increases, whether sober or intoxicated.  Consider further, that this test could be the basis of whether you are going to jail.


Romberg Test

Occasionally, the officer will use the Romberg test, where with your head tilted back and your eyes closed, you estimate time passing and tell the officer when 30 seconds has passed.  The officer is looking for balance issues and an incorrect estimation of time.  Often, the driver will not understand that he or she is the one to say stop, and will expect the officer to stop the test.  These sort of misunderstandings work in the officer’s favor as they can now count it as another clue.  The officer is also looking for balance issues and other forms of intoxication as well.  Remember, it’s not so much a test as it is a documentary of your intoxication.


Conclusion:  Just don’t Do It

An officer conducting a DWI investigation will give “commands” to perform SFSTs but you may always refuse.  If you have had zero alcoholic beverages, that day, you can ask to go straight to a breath test.  If you have had even one drink, refuse that as well.  You might be arrested and spend a night in jail, but you will have a better chance of fighting the DWI in court.  Always be polite – if you get upset, it will be used against you – even if justified.  You will never “pass” SFSTs.  In rare cases it can keep a person from being arrested, but the test itself is not pass fail.  It’s an evidence-generating mechanism based more on myth than science.  At the end of the day, your best bet is almost always to refuse SFSTs and fight your DWI in court.


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