What Medical Conditions Can Affect Field Sobriety Tests?Field sobriety tests (FSTs) are a staple in roadside DUI investigations. These standardized tests, consisting of the horizontal gaze nystagmus, walk-and-turn, and one-leg stand, aim to assess a driver’s physical coordination and mental state. Ideally, these tests provide officers with probable cause to suspect alcohol impairment. However, this overlooked element often gets sidelined: the significant influence of medical conditions on FST performance. This can lead to misinterpretations and potentially wrongful DUI arrests in Bowie and Dunkirk, Maryland.

A quick recap of standardized field sobriety tests

The three standardized FSTs are designed to be quick and easy to administer. Let’s break them down:

  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN):This test observes involuntary eye jerking during side-to-side gaze movement. While present in intoxicated individuals, HGN can also be a symptom of various medical conditions unrelated to alcohol.
  • Walk-and-turn:This test evaluates a person’s ability to follow instructions, maintain balance while walking, and perform a heel-to-toe turn. However, balance and coordination issues stemming from medical conditions can lead to a bad performance, falsely suggesting intoxication.
  • One-leg stand:This test assesses balance and coordination by asking the driver to stand on one leg for a specific duration with eyes closed. Similar to the Walk-and-Turn, medical conditions affecting balance can make this test difficult to complete, leading to misinterpretations of impairment.

While FSTs offer a quick snapshot of a driver’s potentially intoxicated state, they are far from foolproof. Factors like fatigue, age, anxiety, and – most importantly for this discussion – medical conditions, can significantly influence performance.

What types of health conditions can mimic intoxication?

Here’s a closer look at how various medical conditions can mimic signs of intoxication during FSTs:

  • Vision issues:Reduced visual acuity, pre-existing nystagmus (independent of intoxication), cataracts, and vertigo can significantly hinder performance on the HGN test.
  • Musculoskeletal issues:Inner ear problems, arthritis, prior injuries, and neurological conditions that affect balance and coordination can make both the walk-and-turn and one-leg stand tests exceptionally difficult. The inability to maintain balance or follow a straight line can be misinterpreted as a sign of intoxication.
  • Respiratory issues:Asthma, COPD, and other respiratory conditions can affect breath control and coordination, leading to swaying or difficulty following instructions during FSTs. These symptoms can be mistaken for intoxication cues.
  • Neurological conditions:Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and tremors can cause involuntary movements that resemble the swaying and lack of fine motor control often associated with intoxication.
  • Psychiatric conditions:Anxiety disorders can manifest in physical symptoms like tremors or difficulty concentrating, impacting all FSTs. An officer may misinterpret these symptoms as signs of alcohol impairment.

Godoy Medical Forensics states:

There are many medical issues that can mimic alcohol intoxication. The list includes low blood sugar, stroke, seizures, encephalitis/meningitis, sepsis, kidney failure, different forms of encephalopathy, drug intoxication, electrolyte imbalances, hypothyroidism, hypothermia, vitamin deficiencies, multiple sclerosis, adrenal diseases, low oxygen levels, CO2 poisoning, dementia, psychiatric disease, and traumatic brain injury/concussion.

During a DUI stop, officers are trained to observe the driver for signs of intoxication. However, relying solely on FST performance without considering a driver’s medical history can lead to false positives. Here are some reasons why:

  • Misinterpretation of symptoms:An officer may mistake symptoms of a medical condition for intoxication cues. For example, tremors from Parkinson’s disease or essential tremor can be misinterpreted as a sign of impairment on the walk-and-turn test.
  • Inability to perform tests:Certain medical conditions may make it physically impossible for a driver to complete a specific FST. For instance, someone with severe arthritis might struggle with the one-leg stand test, leading the officer to believe they are intoxicated due to their inability to maintain balance.

How can I protect myself from a wrongful DUI arrest?

If you have a medical condition that might affect your performance on a field sobriety test, following are some steps you should take to protect yourself:

  • Be upfront with the officer:Politely explain your medical condition to the officer when pulled over. Inform them of any medications you’re taking that could potentially affect your coordination or balance.
  • Carry medical documentation:Keep a doctor’s note or prescription medication bottle readily available to support your explanation of the medical condition.
  • Request alternative assessments:If unable to perform certain FSTs due to a medical condition, ask the officer if alternative assessments can be administered. This could include a preliminary breath test (PBT) or a more in-depth evaluation at the station.
  • Know your rights:Remember, you have the right to remain silent and refuse an FST. However, you should also understand that a refusal can be used against you in court as probable cause.

Field sobriety tests should be a starting point, not an endpoint. Here’s what a more thorough DUI investigation should entail:

  • Witness statements:Obtaining statements from witnesses who observed the driver’s behavior before and during the stop can provide valuable insights into potential impairment.
  • Vehicle inspection:Inspecting the vehicle for open containers or signs of drug use can strengthen the case against you.
  • Preliminary breath test (PBT):While not definitive, a PBT can offer a preliminary indication of blood alcohol content (BAC). However, it’s important to remember that PBTs are not always accurate and should be corroborated with other evidence.
  • Blood or breath test:Chemical tests administered at the station can provide a more definitive measure of your BAC. However, even these tests can be challenged in court due to improper administration procedures or potential errors.

How our attorney can help

If you are arrested for a DUI and have a medical condition, seeking legal representation from an experienced Bowie DUI attorney is critical to your case. Our Dunkirk attorney can:

  • Review the details of your arrest:A thorough examination of the arrest details, including police reports, FST performance, and any medical conditions you disclosed, can help identify potential weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
  • Challenge FST results:Your attorney can analyze the FST administration and highlight potential factors like medical conditions that might have influenced your performance.
  • Explore alternative explanations:Your attorney can investigate alternative explanations for your behavior during the stop, such as fatigue, medication side effects, or a medical episode unrelated to alcohol or drugs.
  • Negotiate with the prosecutor:In some cases, depending on the strength of the evidence and your medical history, your attorney may be able to negotiate a favorable plea bargain with the prosecutor.

Were you arrested for DUI/DWI after failing a field sobriety test? At Carey Law Office, our attorney can help with your defense. Call or contact us today to learn more. Carey Law Office maintains offices in Bowie and Dunkirk, and serves all of Calvert County.