You may be among many people in North Carolina and elsewhere who get nervous when they see a police officer in uniform. Even if a cop pulls you over and you are fairly confident you were not breaking the law in any way while driving, the sight of an officer approaching your vehicle might be enough to make your blood pressure soar. This type of stress causes many motorists to mistakenly believe that police can do whatever they want during traffic stops.
They can't. You have rights and no one can undermine those rights, including police. One of the things you can definitely expect to happen if an officer has stopped you on suspicion that you've been drinking is that he or she will likely ask you to step out of your car. Once you do, it is critical that you remember everything that the officer says and does from that point on, especially if it involves a field sobriety test.
Types of tests most commonly used
In North Carolina and most other states, police use field sobriety tests to determine if they have probable cause to make a drunk driving arrest. The following list includes a rundown of each test, showing steps, as well as what the officer might be looking for:
- Horizontal gaze nystagmus: The average human eyeball has a maximum peripheral vision point, and if you try to look side-to-side or up and down using only your eyes and you glance beyond that point, your eyeballs may jerk. Intoxicated people's eyes tend to jerk a lot sooner than the maximum point, which is why an officer will hold up a finger or penlight and tell you to track the movement of the object with your eyes.
- Walk-and-turn: You've probably seen this test played out in movies because it's the one most associated with drunk driving. The officer is checking several things with the walk-and-turn test, including how well you follow simple instructions and how well you keep your balance when walking heel-to-toe along a straight line while stretching your arms out at shoulder length.
- One-leg stance: If balance is not one of your best talents, this test can cause you problems because even sober people have trouble with it at times. Your arms will stay at your side on this one, but you have to stand on one leg, sometimes while looking up toward the sky, and count out loud by 1000s or another given amount.
If you submit to a field sobriety test, especially when you're already feeling nervous and unsure of yourself, and the officer decides that you failed it, you may wind up in the back of a police car on your way to jail. This is partly because the results rely on the officer's personal opinions to a large degree. You won't necessarily stay in jail or face conviction if prosecutors file charges; however, you'll have your work cut out to avoid it.
Protecting your freedom
The more you know about your rights and understand how to protect them, the better. There is no legal or administrative penalty for refusing to take a field sobriety test. In short, you do not have to comply. The state cannot suspend your license nor can the officer arrest you for refusing. You will also want to know, however, that prosecutors know how to use the fact that you refused a field sobriety test against you in court and will likely do so if you wind up facing charges.