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Standardized Field Sobriety Tests Part 2: the Walk and Turn Test

Maryland DUI attorney Ed Tayter contributed this blog post.

In my last post, I discussed the first of three Standardized Field Sobriety tests that a police officer will ask a driver suspected of Driving Under the Influence, or Driving While Impaired to perform: the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test. In this post, I will discuss the second test, the Walk and Turn.

The Walk and Turn test is the most complicated of the three Standardized Field Sobriety tests. It is not just a test of balance and coordination; it is also a divided attention test, as well as a test of the suspected DUI driver’s ability to follow a long list of directions.

The Walk and Turn test has eight possible clues of impairment, divided into two stages. The first stage is the Instructional Stage. This stage is the divided attention task in this test. The police officer is supposed to instruct the suspect to stand with their right foot ahead of their left, touching heel to toe, with their arms at their sides, and to hold this awkward position while the police officer explains and demonstrates the test. The explanation and demonstration of the test should take between 45 and 90 seconds. If the suspected DUI driver does not stand in this awkward and uncomfortable position until the officer says that they may begin the test, then they have just demonstrated one of the eight clues of impairment that the officer is trained to record.

If the suspected DUI driver starts the test before the officer finishes the instructions, that is a second clue of impairment. This means that if the suspect does a practice step to make sure that he understands how he is supposed to walk, the officer will mark down two clues, 1) Loses balance during instructions and 2) Starts test before instructions are finished. These are two of the most common clues that I see when reading police reports, because most people stand in a comfortable stance when listening to instructions, and try to show the police officer that they understand by taking a practice step. If you do this, you have just failed one quarter of the test.

The next stage of the Walk and Turn test is the Walking Stage. There are six clues that an officer is trained to record when a suspect does this test. They are:

1) Stops while walking: if a suspect asks how many steps to take or pauses while walking for any reason, they get marked for this clue.
2) Does not touch heel to toe: if a suspect leaves a 1/2″ gap between their feet on any of the 18 steps, they get marked for this clue.
3) Steps off line: if a suspect steps off the real (or more often, imaginary) line on any of the 18 steps, they get marked for this clue.
4) Uses arms for balance: if a suspect lifts their arms more than 6″ from their sides during any part of the test, they get marked for this clue.
5) Incorrect number of steps: if a suspect takes more or less than 9 steps out and 9 steps back, they get marked for this clue.
6) Improper turn: the only correct way to do the turn is by taking a series of small steps with the back foot around the planted front foot. If a suspect pivots or turns around any other way than instructed, they get marked for this clue. This is probably the most common clue that I see when reading police reports. Almost nobody does the turn correctly.

As you can see, it is very difficult to pass this test unless you know what clues the officer is trained to look for, even under ideal conditions. When you are pulled over on the side of the road with traffic zipping past, scared that you just got pulled over for a DUI, even if you are completely sober, you may not be able to pass this test. The good news – and the most useful thing to take from reading this – is that you can and should refuse to do this test when an officer asks. There is no legal penalty for refusing to do this test.

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