In October of 2020, our client was pulled over for failing to maintain her lane and impeding traffic. The trooper with the Ohio State Highway Patrol noted in his report, “for no apparent reason,” the car “slowed to a speed of approximately 30 mph in a posted 55 mph zone.” He further noted the car activated its right turn signal in an area where there are no right turns available and continued traveling at a slow speed, impeding traffic according to the officer. The trooper then noted the vehicle came to a complete stop in the middle of the road, then continued traveling, activating its left turn signal and coming to a complete stop again.
It appeared the driver was lost. The trooper activated his lights, pulled our client over, and the first thing our client told him when he approached her vehicle was that she was lost. The trooper quickly dismissed our client’s story and accused her of not wearing her seatbelt. She informed him she was wearing it but had just taken it off when she was pulled over. He did not believe her. When the trooper asked for her ID, she handed over her debit card. He asked her why she traveled outside of her lane, she did not give a clear answer but apologized, admitting she was on her phone. She denied drinking any alcohol or being under the influence of any drugs when asked.
Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) – Are they accurate?
When he ordered her to step out of the vehicle, she apologized and told him she had severe anxiety, that she was very nervous, and had never been in this situation before. He gave her instructions on the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test (HGN). This is the test where law enforcement looks for clues of involuntary eye jerking associated with impairment. When she did not follow the instructions precisely as he directed her to, the trooper became agitated. She was very nervous and reiterated she had never been in this situation and did not know what to do. She also told the trooper he was increasing her anxiety.
The trooper suggested if she did not perform the tests, he would arrest her for OVI. She hesitantly agreed to try to perform the next couple of tests.
The trooper then gave her instructions about the next test, the walk and turn test, and asked her if she had any injuries that would prevent her from walking in a straight line. She responded, advising him she had high anxiety that makes her very shaky. The trooper became more agitated. She pointed to her unsteadiness and shakiness, saying, “God, see now I’m nervous. I’m so nervous. You’re making me nervous. Why are you getting upset with me?”
She explained her high anxiety would prevent her from walking correctly for the test. She also explained she just lost her father, making her anxiety worse. When explaining her anxiety would impact her ability to perform tests, the trooper responded that everyone has anxiety and it should not be difficult for her to simply follow the instructions and perform as she’s told if she only has high anxiety. She ultimately performed the test. Out of all eight clues the trooper looks for pursuant to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (“NHTSA”) standards, the trooper noted she demonstrated all eight clues.
The trooper moved on to the next SFST, the one leg stand. Even though she tried explaining her high anxiety would prevent her from performing, the trooper dismissed her concerns. Out of NHTSA’s four clues for the one leg stand test, the trooper noted she demonstrated three out of the four clues.
OVI arrest based on “failed” SFSTs
The trooper arrested her for marked lanes, impeding traffic, and OVI. At the police station, our client submitted to a urine test when requested by the officer who suspected she was impaired with drugs.
Notably, a NHTSA, citing a study conducted in San Diego, says if the subject exhibits two or more clues on the walk and turn test, there is a 79% chance the individual has a BAC of .08 or above. With the one leg stand test, the same study says with 83% accuracy, an officer can accurately conclude the individual’s BAC is at or above a .08 when the person demonstrates at least two of the four clues.
Here, all eight clues were present on the walk and turn test and three of the four clues were present on the one leg stand tests.
Urine test results prove no impairment
The result of the urine test confirmed no impairment —no drugs or alcohol were in our client’s system. Therefore, the prosecutor agreed to dismiss all charges, even though it was undisputed she did commit minor traffic violations as shown on the cruiser camera video footage.
It is important to understand how emotionally charged situations and high anxiety can impact a person’s ability to perform well on field sobriety tests. In these situations, many individuals are put on the spot, are in unfamiliar situations, are forced to perform abnormal and unnatural physical tasks, and are coerced into auditioning for their freedom. Adding high anxiety to this mix yields a recipe for disaster.
In a perfect world, police officers would listen to what defendants have to say and would not jump to conclusions. Most officers do their jobs very well; however, they are human beings and sometimes make mistakes based upon personal decisions and decisions dictated by their training policy. Police officers are trained to arrest for OVI when they see clues of impairment on field sobriety tests. But this case highlights the fact that these clues are not always clues of impairment and not always objective.
Even though an arrest may ensue, everyone should know it is not illegal to refuse SFSTs. In fact, these tests should nearly always be avoided. Thankfully, justice prevailed in this case as our client was clearly not impaired by drugs or alcohol. Had she exercised her right to refuse a urine test, the outcome could have been different because the prosecutor would have tried to convince a jury she had something to hide by refusing the urine test. If the jury accepted this argument, her bad driving and poor performance of the field sobriety tests may have led to an unfortunate and false OVI conviction.
If you or someone you know has been charged with an OVI, do not hesitate to contact the experienced criminal & traffic defense attorneys at Rittgers Rittgers & Nakajima at 513-496-0134 for your free consultation.