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Walk And Turn (WAT):  One Of The Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFST’s)

As you will recall, Susan Hartman, of the Law Offices of Susan L. Hartman, attended The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and The International Association of Chiefs of Police (ICAP) approved DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing Practitioner Course, as presented by Mr. Robert La Pier.

The course went through the three standardized field sobriety tests (SFST’s), as laid out by NHTSA:  1.) The horizontal gaze nystagmus; 2.) The walk and turn; and 3.) The one leg stand.  These are the only tests that have been validated by NHTSA and should be used by law enforcement in evaluating each potential DUI.  It should be noted that these tests were only validated to correlate to a specific blood alcohol content (BAC) and they are not be used to show impairment.

In the last blog article, the horizontal gaze nystagmus, or HGN, test was discussed. This article will address the walk and turn test, (WAT).

The NHTSA manual states that this “test should be conducted on a reasonably dry, hard, level, non-slippery surface.”  If the person is wearing heels that are more than two inches, they should be given the choice to remove the shoes and perform the test barefooted.

There are many reasons why a person may not be able to adequately perform this test, regardless of their consumption of alcohol.  For instance, as a person ages, balance and coordination is more difficult.  If a subject has any current or prior injuries to their back or legs, or they suffer from inner ear problems, they also may not be able to successfully perform the test.  However, in my experience, officers often state, “I will take your concerns about taking the test into consideration,” and then proceed with having the subject perform the test.

The WAT test is a divided attention test, testing the ability of the subject to do more than one task at the same time.  There are two stages: 1.) The instructions stage; and, 2.) The walking stage. As you can imagine, the instructions stage is very important.  If the officer fails to properly instruct the subject, and the subject does not do the test correctly, the test can be invalidated.

The officer should instruct the person to stand with their left foot on a line, which can be real or imaginary.  Their right foot should be placed on the line in front of the left foot, with the heel of the right foot touching the toe of the left foot.  Their arms should be at their sides and this position should be held for the duration of the instructions.  The person should not start to walk until instructed to do so.  Then the officer should ask the subject if they understand the instructions so far.

The officer should then explain and demonstrate the walking portion of the test as follows:  When I tell you to begin, take 9 heel to toe steps on the line.  When you get to the ninth step, keep your front foot on the line and take a series of small steps with your other foot, pivoting to turn back around and then take nine steps back. While walking, keep your hands by your sides, count out loud, and watch your feet at all times.  Once you start walking, do not stop until you complete the test.  Again, the person should be asked if they understand and then they are told to begin the test.

The officer should be looking for 8 clues.  They are: 1.) Subject cannot keep their balance for the instructions phase; 2.) They start too soon; 3.) Stops walking once the walking phase begins; 4.) Does not touch heel to toe, more than one-half inch; 5.) Steps off the line, which means one foot off the line entirely; 6.) Uses their arms to balance, with arms more than six inches from their sides; 7.) Improper turn; and, 8.) Incorrect number of steps.

If the test is performed properly and 2 or more clues are observed, it is likely the person’s BAC is at or above .08%, according to NHTSA.  But, this test is only 79% accurate, which means 21% of the time the test is inaccurate!  An earlier NHTSA study reported the WAT to be 68% accurate and 32% inaccurate in determining if a person is at or above a .10 BAC.  To my knowledge, NHTSA has never addressed the discrepancy of the results of these studies.

When an officer testifies, it often becomes apparent they did not follow NHTSA’s standardized procedures for conducting the test and evaluating the results.  For example, I have seen cops count the same clue several times.  For instance, subject steps off the line 3 times, and tries to count that as 3 clues. This is wrong!  The officer should note only one clue observed no matter how many times the same clue is seen in the test.  If the cop did not administer or score the test properly, the test results will be inaccurate and your case can be impacted in your favor.

If you have been charged with drunk driving in San Diego County, you owe it to yourself to hire a DUI defense attorney who knows how to properly administer and evaluate the SFST’s and how the officers should be conducting themselves in the field when doing a DUI investigation.  Contact the Law Offices of Susan L. Hartman today for your free phone consultation: (619) 260-1122.