The Standardized Field Sobriety Tests lead to bad arrests

Forensic Science The Emperor Has No Clothes
The Emperor Has No Clothes

In the classic children’s tale “The Emperor has No Clothes,” the powerful and well-respected Emperor, who considers himself quite the fashionista, hires two weavers who promise him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or is “just hopelessly stupid”.   Afraid to expose and admit to himself and everyone else that he, the emperor could not see the clothes himself, he pretends that he can.  Similar fears lead his ministers to do the same. The word of the special set of clothes spreads throughout the kingdom.  For fear of being outed as simple or hopelessly stupid, his subjects are prepared to do the same.  Once the clothes were finished, the tailors present it to the king who proclaims them suited for an Emperor.   The Emperor promptly schedules a special procession through the town to show off his new clothes.  Initially along the march, the Emperor struts himself like a proud peacock secure in the illusion.  A simple peasant child in the crowd calls out the truth—that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all.  Quickly, the crowd assembled dissolve the illusion and the cry of the child is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession.  The Emperor has no clothes.

Just like the Emperor in the children’s tale, the Standardized Filed Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) operate under the collective delusion that they have meaning onto themselves, but the truth is that they have no intrinsic value to a jury and only very limited use for police a roadside.

In 1991, Dr. Spurgeon Cole of Clemson University conducted a study on the validity of the SFSTs. His staff videotaped individuals performing six common field sobriety tests, then showed the tapes to fourteen (14) well-trained police officers and asked them to decide whether the suspects had “had too much to drink and drive”.  Unbeknownst to the participating police officers, the Blood Alcohol Concentration of each of the twenty-one (21) DUI subjects was 0.00. Despite the fact that every person they viewed in fact had a legitimate 0.00 BAC, the result was the officers made an arrest decision a shocking forty-six percent (46%) of these factually innocent people and concluded that they were too drunk to be able to drive. This study showed the possible invalidity of SFSTs.

Cole and Nowaczyk, “Field Sobriety Tests: Are they Designed for Failure?”, 79 Perceptual and Motor Skills Journal 99 (1994)

Forensic Science False arrest due to SFSTs
False arrest due to SFSTs
  • This study is useful to show how dangerous the NHTSA presumption that all uncoordinated people are drunk and all sober people are coordinated.
  • This study is useful to show how we must use these psychomotor tests should be extremely limited and used for only their limited intended design which is as a useful quick screening device, but only if explained, administered and scored correctly.  It is useful for the officer at roadside and not a useful generator of conclusions for a Jury to use.
  • This study is useful to show how in using these tests to judge or record impairment (which is the improper purpose of these tests) is a dangerous practice.  Because officers or anyone trying to identify strangers and to classify them as “unsafe to drive” with no frame of reference or comparison to the stranger’s range of psychomotor function, dexterity, coordination, response to nervous situations, pre-existing medical conditions or ability to memorize and complete complex instructions told to them once, the SFSTs are dangerous business.
  • This study is useful to show how based on the Walk-And-Turn (WAT), the One Leg Stand (OLS) and other divided attention tasks (remember there were 6 used in the study which is more than what was done in the typical case) it remains useless information for  a jury as like most screening tests they are subject to extremely high false positive rates

Other related posts on this topic include:

  1. DUI Tunnel Vision: How Contextual Bias leads to False Arrests

  2. Pennsylvania DUI Attorney has the video that will forever prove that SFSTs are not valid

  3. DUI Innocence Project: 93% Wrong-False Use of Roadside Tests Can Lead to False Arrest

  4. Are the Field Sobriety Tests Scientifically Proven?

  5. Do the Roadside DUI Tests Actually Measure Impaired Driving?

  6. Roadside DUI Test: Standardized Field Sobriety Tests Explained

Based upon all of this we can conclude that the roadside tests are meaningless, purposeless, high stress, high stakes game of Simon Says.

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