For many years, field sobriety “tests” (FST’s) have been used by South Carolina law enforcement officers to identify drivers who are impaired by alcohol. Yet, in a study conducted several years ago by two scientists at Clemson University, officers misidentified 32% of individuals in a laboratory setting as being above the “legal limit” when these individuals actually were sober!

In this study, two groups of seven law enforcement officers watched videotapes of 21 (sober) individuals performing a variety of field sobriety tests. The 14 police officers had from 1 to 17 years of law enforcement experience and they had all completed DUI detection training at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. The individuals were 10 males (7 Caucasian and three African-American), and 11 Caucasian females. They ranged between 21 and 55 years old, they weren’t overweight, and none of them had any physical disabilities. Again, NONE of the participants consumed any alcohol.

The field sobriety tests including the walk-and-turn test, the one-leg-stand test, and reciting the alphabet. The walk-and-turn test requires a person to stand on a line in a heel-to-toe position while listening to instructions and then to take nine steps in a heel-to-toe fashion, pivot, and take nine more steps along a straight line. The one-leg stand requires an individual to stand with their arms at their side and extend one foot six inches off the ground and maintain that position while counting for 30 seconds without extending the arms or losing balance.

If these are supposed to be actual “tests,” then why were these police officers mistaken 32% of the time?  Essentially, the “tests” are unfamiliar and they aren’t easy to do without practice. To a police officer who has demonstrated the tests many times before, the tests may seem easy to do. Likewise, to a casual observer, the tests may seem straightforward. However, when a sober, untrained person performs the tests, they oftentimes discover that the tests aren’t as easy as they look and that an untrained person doesn’t always have the motor skills to perform the tests properly.

Although this study is several years old, the circumstances haven’t changed. Police officers still perform these tests, and therefore a percentage of innocent people are still placed under arrest for DUI. The good news is that with the services of an experienced Charleston DUI attorney, a judge or jury can be educated that these tests aren’t as reliable as they seem, and that the accused is actually innocent of the charge for DUI.

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