According a recent TMZ Celebrity Justice article, Ford Motor Company heiress, Elena Ford, had “SERIOUS” trouble with field sobriety tests leading to her being arrested and charged with driving under the influence (DUI). The article stated that Ford was asked to say the alphabet and ended up with several extra letters. It is also alleged that Ford had difficulty counting down from 100 to 80. The police report stated that she was asked to finger count and did that correctly. The first test given was a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. The officer noted lack of smooth pursuit in both eyes and the onset of a distinct nystagmus prior to 45 degrees.
As a Washington, DC DUI lawyer, I see a lot of people who have been told they failed a field sobriety test. While the Ford case occurred in MI, field sobriety tests have been standardized, so they should be the same everywhere. This is not always the case. For this post, I will focus on DUI law in the District of Columbia. Prior to the 1970s, police were giving field sobriety tests to suspected drunk drivers that were basically made up by officers because they seemed difficult to do while drunk. One common test was for police to drop coins on the floor and make the driver bend down and pick them up. This resulted in head injuries and is no longer used. The DC police would also do the finger to nose touch, saying the alphabet, and several others. It was at this point that the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) decided to conduct interviews and studies to determine which tests had the possibility of working and could be safely performed on the side of a road.
In the next part of this post, I will look at each of the specific tests mentioned in this article and discuss their history, law, and validity.