Field Sobriety Tests are not only what police officers use to decide whether they have probable cause to arrest you, they are also what prosecutors, judges, and juries rely on in determining the guilt or innocence of those accused of driving while intoxicated. The Walk and Turn Test (WAT) is the first opportunity the investigating officer has during the field sobriety tests to observe whether there is actual physical impairment of a person’s balance and walking. During the initial contact phase of the investigation the officer is already looking for possible signs of impairment, but the WAT is the first sobriety test designed to detect physical impairment.
On the WAT there are a possibility of eight indicators of impairment. Many people claim that they cannot complete this test whether sober or intoxicated. However, evidence shows that exhibiting two out of eight clues indicates a 79% probability of that subject having a BAC over the presumed legal limit of .08%. Like the HGN, however, the test is only as accurate as the person (i.e. law enforcement officer) administering the test and only as accurate as the instructions that are given. This is why it is critically important to have an attorney in these cases who understands and knows the field sobriety testing protocol so that they can determine whether the officers administered the test appropriately and, if not, can adequately cross-examine the officer and bring those inaccuracies to the Court or jury’s attention. Judd’s experience as a police officer conducting the WAT test gives him the advantage of having comprehensive knowledge of how the test is supposed to be administered.
The WAT test is a divided attention test. What this means is that it combines a physical and a mental task at the same time. Like all divided attention tests there are two stages: on the WAT there is an instructions stage and a balance and counting stage. Both stages are important as they can both affect a subject’s overall performance, but the instruction phase is given by the officer administering the test. It is critically important that the instructions are given properly, otherwise, the results cannot and should not be relied upon by the judge or the jury. Also in order to be relied upon with any sense of accuracy, the test must be conducted on a surface that is dry, hard, level, and non-slippery. Other factors that may play a role in the accuracy of this test is if the subject is 65 years of age or older, or is greater than 50 pounds overweight. Although these factors may affect people differently, they are something to consider and should be brought to the Court or jury’s attention if present.
To have any accuracy whatsoever, the instruction phase outlined in the officer’s training manual must be completely adhered to. There are sixteen distinct points of instruction that must be given prior to the subject performing the WAT test. If any instructions are left out, the results of the test are greatly compromised. The officers are taught to give the instructions from a safe distance from the subject. Then, the following instructions must be given:
- Tell the suspect to place their left foot on a line (which can be an imaginary line, although an existing line such as a parking lot line is preferred) with the right foot in front, heel touching toe, keeping the arms at their sides. Demonstrate as they do it.
- Tell the suspect not to begin the test until instructed to do so. Ask suspect if he or she understands.
- Tell the suspect that he or she will be expected to take nine heel-to-toe steps down the line, make a turn in a prescribed manner, and return nine heel-to-toe steps back to the starting position. Tell the suspect that you will demonstrate.
- Explain and demonstrate using three heel-to-toe steps.
- Explain and demonstrate the turn procedure.
- Explain and demonstrate three heel-to-toe steps for return.
- Ask the suspect if he or she understands.
- Tell the suspect to watch his or her feet at all times.
- Tell suspect that he or she is to count each step out loud (so that you can hear him or her).
- Tell suspect that he or she is to keep his or her arms at their sides at all times during the test.
- Tell the suspect that he or she is not to stop the test once it has begun.
- Instruct the suspect that if he or she steps off the line, to place their foot back on the line and continue walking in the heel-to-to fashion until the test is complete.
- Ask the suspect if he or she understands the instructions for the test.
- Ask the suspect if he or she feels they cannot perform the test as explained.
- Tell the suspect that the first step from where he or she is currently standing is step one.
- As the suspect if he or she has any physical disabilities that would not enable them to complete the test.
- Tell the suspect to begin the test.
Once again, if any of these instructions are left out of the first phase by the officer, that particular instruction cannot be used as a clue, and the validity of the entire test can be called into question. During the test, the eight possible indicators of impairment that may be present are each included in the instructions. Although there are a total of 18 steps and a turn on the test, if an indicator of impairment occurs only one time it is considered a clue. That is what makes the walk and turn test such a difficult test for many people. There are numerous ways to exhibit an indicator of impairment and it seems even non-impaired people could show one or more of the indicators.
With the officer’s report that is presented to the prosecuting attorney after a DWI arrest is made is a separate report called the “alcohol influence report”. On the AIR there is a diagram of the WAT test, as well as nine separate boxes that can be check for each indicator. During the WAT, the investigating officer is looking for the following:
- Fails to maintain heel-to-toe stance (this is during the instructions when the person has to keep right foot in front of their left foot while the instructions are given).
- Starts before instructed to begin.
- Stops while walking to steady self.
- Does not touch heel-to-toe (misses by more than 1/2 inch).
- Loses balance while walking (steps off line).
- Uses arms for balance (raises arms more than 6 inches from side).
- Loses balance while turning or made an improper turn.
- Incorrect number of steps.
- Cannot perform or refused to do the test.
If two or more of the above indicators are present the subject is considered to have failed the test and officers will testify on the witness stand that the failure of that test indicates a possibility that the subject was impaired. The prosecutor will then try to couple that failure with other indicators to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt to the judge or jury. As with the HGN test, if the WAT is not recorded on an audio/video camera, it will be difficult to uncover whether an officer administered the test correctly by giving the correct instructions. However, it may be difficult for an officer to regurgitate every single instruction while on the witness stand as well. That is again why it takes a criminal defense attorney who is knowledgeable in field sobriety testing to effectively cross-examine highly trained and experienced police officers.