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Minneapolis DWI Defense: What You Need to Know About Field Sobriety Tests

Field sobriety tests yield false positives on a routine basis. Many people cannot perform field sobriety tests successfully when sober. Nonetheless, prosecutors can use the results as evidence of impairment in Minneapolis DWI Defense.

The Three Standard Field Sobriety Tests in Minneapolis

Minnesota law enforcement uses three standard field sobriety tests to establish probable cause to believe a motorist is intoxicated:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test (HGN)

Many people are unaware that a person’s eyes involuntary jerk as they gaze toward the side. However, an intoxicated person’s eyes jerk in an exaggerated manner. As a result, intoxicated individuals struggle to track a moving object with their eyes smoothly.

Officers administer the HGN test by instructing a suspect to follow a moving object with his eyes, such as a pen or small flashlight. Testing instructions require officers to look for three signs of intoxication: (1) The eye has difficulty tracking the moving object smoothly (2) Jerking of the eye is evident when the eye is at maximum deviation from the center (3) The angle of onset of jerking occurs within 45 degrees of center.

The test developers believe that when officers observe four or more indicators between both eyes, there is a better chance than not that the subject is intoxicated.

HGN test observations may indicate the presence of other depressants. For this reason, the test is effective in establishing probable cause for drunk- or drugged driving. However, some prescription medications can cause a positive HGN result, such as seizure medications or barbiturate-based treatments.

Can You Be Convicted of DWI for Driving Under the Influence of Prescription Medications?

Minnesota is a zero-tolerance DWI state. Accordingly, motorists commit DWI when they suffer impairment because of alcohol, illegal drug, or legal drug. As a result, courts do find defendants guilty when prescription medications impair them.

However, unlike alcohol, there is no per se standard for prescription medications. Per se DWI means that the law presumes impairment due to a level of intoxication. Under Minnesota law, a BAC of .08 or higher qualifies for the per se presumption of intoxication. Therefore, the state need not prove impairment.

Per SE Dwi Also Applies to Illegal Drugs.

But when it comes to prescription medications, no per se DWI exists. After all, the medications are legal and taken to treat illnesses, not for recreation. Nonetheless, some medications can cause some individuals to become dangerously impaired behind the wheel.

The state must prove impairment beyond a reasonable doubt to win a DWI conviction based on prescription drug use. A positive HGN test cannot prove someone is too impaired to drive safely. However, a positive test result induces officers to perform additional testing to find evidence of impairment.

Walk-and-turn test (WAT)

WAT tests determine if a DWI suspect can divide attention. Impaired people are too intoxicated to listen and follow instructions while performing simple physical movements. As a result, an intoxicated person often fails to walk and turn following the officer’s instructions.

Most unimpaired individuals perform the WAT test without issue. However, impaired people find it difficult to divide their attention between following basic instructions (i.e., a simple mental task) and performing the easy (for most people) physical task of walking and turning.

Officers administer the WAT test by instructing the subject to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along a straight line. After nine steps, the subject is supposed to turn on one foot and return to the starting point the same way.

As the subject performs the movements, officers look for eight indicators of impairment. These include the following: (1) Can the subject maintain balance while obeying instructions (2) Does the subject begin the actions before the officer finishes giving instructions (3) Does the subject stop while walking to regain balance (4) Does the suspect fail to touch heel-to-toe (5) Can the subject proceed in a straight (6) Must the subject use his arms for balance (7) Does the subject make an improper turn (8) Does the subject take an incorrect number of steps.

NHTSA research shows that the majority of individuals who exhibit two or more indicators while performing the WAT test are more likely than not to have a BAC of 0.08 or higher.

Could you perform the WAT test without error while sober?

Many people cannot. Firstly, some individuals have memory difficulties and may be unable to remember all the details required by the officer. Secondly, a person who is tired or stressed may struggle to comprehend, remember, and execute the movements as the officer demands. Also, prescription medications could cause WAT test failure despite the subject being unimpaired.

Also, some individuals have inadequate balance to perform the WAT test. Poor balance can result from age, injuries, and illnesses. For example, a person with a sprained ankle may be unable to perform the WAT test as instructed because of the injury’s impact on balance.

While WAT tests may establish probable cause, they are inadequate for proving impairment beyond a reasonable doubt.

One-leg stand tests (OLS)

The OLS test requires subjects to balance on one foot for 30 seconds. The subject must keep the elevated foot six inches off the ground and count aloud by thousands until told to stop.

During the test, the officer looks for four indicators of impairment: (1) Swaying (2) Using arms to balance (3) Hopping to maintain balance (4) Putting the foot down.

NHTSA research shows that the majority of individuals that exhibit two or more indicators while performing the OLS test will have a BAC of 0.08 or higher.

Could you perform the OLS test without error while sober?

Many people cannot. For instance, elderly people may have compromised balance, and many have no chance of maintaining balance on one foot for 30 seconds. Also, many younger people are simply not blessed with good balance. After all, we cannot all be gymnasts. Individuals predisposed to poor balance may fail this test sober.

Also, many Americans live sedentary lifestyles. As a result, their core muscles weaken and tighten. Without strong and flexible hips, buttocks, thighs, and back, a person may struggle to balance on one foot at all, much less for thirty seconds.

Additionally, overweight and out-of-condition individuals may lack the endurance to balance for thirty seconds.

Finally, many injuries impact balance. For example, a lumbar strain may make balancing painful and difficult, if not impossible. Also, ankle, foot, and leg injuries can make it impossible to balance on one foot. For example, a person with peroneal tendonitis may be unable to balance because of tightness and weakness in the foot and ankle.

In fact, regaining balance is often a goal of physical therapy for many injuries. The loss of range of motion and strength in the injured region often robs a person of their ability to maintain balance on one foot for even short periods. Physical therapists must often have patients stand between bars and perform balancing exercises until they recover sufficiently to try balancing on one foot without the supports.

Though an OLS test failure may give officers probable cause, they are a far cry from proving DWI beyond a reasonable doubt.


Can Field Sobriety Tests Be Used Against You in Court in Minneapolis?

Field sobriety tests can be introduced as evidence against a DWI defendant. Accordingly, field sobriety tests give the prosecution an advantage in winning the case at trial. In addition, field sobriety test evidence gives them leverage in plea bargaining.

For instance, an officer may administer a field sobriety test and observe that you cannot perform several tasks. The officer can now testify that you performed poorly on the tests. Also, a body cam recording of you struggling to perform a field sobriety test can help the prosecution win.

Field sobriety test results become particularly damaging in cases where no per se DWI exists. The law presumes impairment when the state can prove the defendant had a BAC above .08%. Therefore, additional evidence of impairment, such as a field sobriety test, is unnecessary to sustain a conviction.

However, what if the chemical test comes in below .08%? Under Minnesota law, the state can still obtain a conviction if it can prove impairment. The alleged failure of a field sobriety test may allow them to do so. Also, an alleged field sobriety test failure can prove impairment due to prescription medication and other drugs where no per se standard exists.

Can You Refuse a Field Sobriety Test in Minneapolis?

Minnesota law allows you to refuse a field sobriety test. By not taking the test, you eliminate a possible source of evidence to prove impairment. As a result, you may win your case, provided the state is unable to demonstrate per se DWI. Clearly, this is advantageous to the Minneapolis DWI Defense.

However, a field sobriety test refusal does give the police probable cause to place you under arrest for suspicion of DWI. They can then compel you to take a blood test. You can refuse the blood test, but doing so constitutes a misdemeanor offense with the mandatory loss of driving privileges, among other consequences.

Agreeing to the field sobriety test provides little upside from the defense’s perspective. A defendant’s refusal to perform the test is inadmissible; however, any evidence of impairment garnered from the test can be used against you.

Are Handheld Breathalyzer Results Admissible in Minneapolis Courts?

Handheld breathalyzer tests are inadmissible in Minnesota courts. The police like to use them to establish probable cause for an arrest. But to obtain admissible evidence, they must perform the test on a stationary breathalyzer or use a blood test. Under the law, you are free to refuse portable breathalyzers. However, you must take the chemical tests required at the station or face a misdemeanor charge.

Field sobriety tests are notoriously unreliable. While they may give some indicators of impairment, they are prone to false positives because many people cannot perform them as demanded when sober.

You can refuse a field sobriety test, and the prosecution is barred from using this refusal against you. But the state could use your field sobriety test results against you. Taking the test offers no upside from the perspective of a DWI defense.


Talk to an Attorney About Minneapolis DWI Defense

If you face DWI charges, conviction is far from a foregone conclusion. Many Minneapolis DWI defenses can result in dismissed charges, acquittal, or a reduced sentence. Contact Gerald Miller for a Minneapolis DWI consultation.

Related Content: What Is the Penalty for DWI in Minneapolis, MN?

About the author

Kyle Dreger

Kyle Dreger is a skilled DUI/DWI and Criminal Defense lawyer at Gerald Miller P.A. Kyle has received his law degree from the University of St. Thomas School of Law. He is also a professionally trained basketball player.

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