Stoned or Sober: Can You Pass the (BODY Language) Field Sobriety Test?

Police Siren

YIKES! ! !  

Police sirens in your rearview mirror mean trouble, especially if you’ve been drinking or are drug-impaired!  

If police suspect that you are driving while impaired, then be prepared to:

  • be pulled over
  • asked questions, and
  • perform Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFST).

SFSTs are physical performance tests administered by police to determine if the suspect is alcohol or drug impaired for driving.  Specific physical body indicators result in PASS or FAIL outcomes.  Common SFST tests include:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN):

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus

The HGN is one of the most reliable field sobriety test.  HGN involves the suspect’s eyes following a slowly moving object (e.g., a pen or small item held by the police officer) that is placed in front of the face.  When under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the eyes will lack smooth horizontal movement resulting in involuntary or exaggerated eye jerking.  HGN tests the left eye first.

A failed HGN Field Sobriety Test occurs if 4 or more total eye impairments are observed:

  • Inability for the eye to smoothly follow a moving object
  • Jerking starts within 45 degrees of eye center
  • if jerking occurs at furthest horizontal distance
  • Blood Alcohol Level is likely to be 0.08 or greater
  • Eye jerking may also be side-effect of seizure medication, phencyclidine, inhalants, barbiturates, and anti-depressant medications or drugs.

Walk-and-Turn (WAT):

The Walk-and-Turn tests the suspect’s balance and divided attention to accurately follow instructions while performing simple physical movements.  Walk-and-Turn involves:

  • Both arms down and along the side of the body
  • Nine steps (heel-to-toe) along a straight line
  • Count aloud the steps while walking
  • After 9th step, suspect must pivot and turn on one foot and walk back in the same manner to the starting point

If 8 or more of the following indicators of impairment occur, then the suspect fails the Walk-and-Turn test:

  • starts too soon or takes too long to begin
  • difficulty listening to instructions
  • difficulty or inability following instructions
  • can’t keep balance
  • stops walking on the straight line
  • balance is not maintained
  • misses heel-to-toe walking pattern
  • steps off the straight line
  • raises arms for balance
  • difficulty counting or making the correct number of steps
  • improper pivot and turn
  • unable to perform WAT


One Leg Lift       One Leg Stand

The One-Leg-Stand is another balance and divided attention Field Sobriety test. The suspect is instructed to stand:

  • with arms down along the side of the body
  • with one foot about 6 inches off the ground
  • and count aloud by 1000s (i.e., one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, etc.).

Four or more of the following indicates impairment:

  • swaying while balancing
  • raising arms
  • hopping
  • foot can’t remain lifted 6 inches
  • can’t do the test

Finger Count:

Finger Count Test

Is a simple test when conducted sober, but proves to be more challenging when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.  The suspect must:

  • touch the tip of the thumb to the tip of each finger on the same hand while simultaneously counting one, two, three, four.
  • Then, the person must continue to touch the thumb to the tips of the fingers in reverse direction, while counting down four, three, two, one.

The Rhomberg Balance Test:

The Rhomberg Balance Test is a non-standardized field sobriety test. DUI Subjects are instructed to do the following:

  • stand straight with both feet balanced together
  • head is tilted backwards
  • eyes are closed
  • remain in this position while silently estimating 30 seconds of time to elapse
  • suspects are not allowed to count to aloud or to themselves.
  • When the suspect believes that 30 seconds has passed, then the head is returned in the forward position, open eyes, and say “stop”

Signs of impairment include:

  • balance instability / swaying / wobbling
  • eyelid twitching or tremors
  • opening of eyes
  • muscle tension
  • 30 second time distortion:  too slow if drunk, on depressants, or marijuana; too fast if stimulant drug impaired.

Finger to Nose Balance Test:

The Finger to Nose balance test checks equilibrium.  DUI suspects are instructed to:

  • stand straight with feet together
  • eyes closed
  • After officer instructions to begin, bring index finger to the nose

Similar to the Rhomberg Balance Test, the examining officer is looking for body sway, body or eyelid tremors,  muscle tension, or the big tell—missing the nose completely.

A combination of Field Sobriety Tests are given and produce over 90% accuracy.

Other physical impairment and body language clues include:

  • smell of alcohol on breath or marijuana in the air
  • flushed face
  • bloodshot eyes
  • slurred speech
  • dilated pupils (or, widening of pupils for certain drugs)
  • impaired motor dexterity (e.g., fingers fumbling or trembling)
  • disheveled or soiled hair or clothing

It is important to consider possible mental, physical, or medical conditions that may contribute to the presentation or performance outcome of the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests.

For example, the suspect may have life stage issues (e.g., elderly), be on medications with adverse side-effects, or have medical conditions that affect auditory or visual senses, balance, memory, or motor performance resulting in poor Field Sobriety Test results.   Or, the individual’s mental health conditions may negatively impact the Field Sobriety Test results.

If officers are aware of these possible factors, then they can make note of these factors in their report.  The individual still may be too impaired to drive.  Failure to pass the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests will validate impairment and establish enough probable cause for an arrest.


Remember,  “From Head-to-Toes, the BODY Always Shows…the TRUTH!!”

"From Head-to-Toes, the Body Always Shows...the TRUTH!"

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