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Field Sobriety Tests And OWI Law In Michigan

Talking to the police alongside the road after you’ve been stopped is never a pleasant encounter. When the officer asks you to get out of your vehicle and directs you to follow instructions to perform some physical movements, the meeting may be even more uncomfortable. You are suspected of Operating While Intoxicated, and the officer wants to conduct field sobriety tests to evaluate your condition. What do you do?

The criminal charge of operating while intoxicated is often abbreviated as OWI in Michigan, and most drivers know what that means. If you’re arrested on the charge, you could face the costs and trouble of getting out of jail and talking to a lawyer, as well as court costs for hearings and fees. If convicted on the charge, it gets even worse. Costs can go up to thousands of dollars for the incident, and an intoxication charge on your driving record is never good. What are your options?

OWI In Michigan

There are a few ways of proving a criminal violation under an OWI charge, including:

  • Your blood alcohol content (BAC) is above .08%
  • You are under the influence of any intoxicating substance that interferes with your ability to operate your vehicle safely

One of these legal principles involves a physical blood, urine, or breath test to measure your blood alcohol content. The other concept involves intoxication that can be physically seen and demonstrated, or at least the officer claims it can. Usually, a law enforcement officer has evaluated you before making this determination and has asked you to perform some activities to assess your level of intoxication. You are asked to perform field sobriety tests so the officer can determine whether to proceed further and potentially charge you with OWI.

What Are Field Sobriety Tests?

There are three standardized and accepted field sobriety tests. These three evaluations have been rigorously studied by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration for use by law enforcement officers throughout the country and in Michigan. The three standard tests are:

  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test. This procedure starts with the officer instructing the subject to stand still and follow an object (usually a pen or the tip of the officer’s finger) with just the eyes going back and forth from side to side. The officer is looking for signs of the eyes twitching or jerking slightly, especially near the extremes at one side or the other. Called nystagmus, this is an involuntary reaction that is more pronounced when a person is intoxicated.
  • One-Leg Stand test. In this procedure, the officer instructs the subject to stand still in place and lift one foot about six inches off the ground and hold it there until directed to place the foot on the ground again. The officer gauges the suspect’s balance, timing, and ability to follow instructions.
  • Walk-And-Turn test. This physical evaluation involves the officer giving specific instructions for the subject to pace along a straight line with heel-to-toe for nine steps, then turn exactly as instructed and walk back. The officer is looking for signs of impaired balance or an inability to follow instructions carefully and precisely.

While it is true that none of the standardized field sobriety tests are failproof, they have been demonstrated to be effective at revealing signs of intoxication. This is why these three tests continue to be widely used and are admissible in court with the officer’s testimony of how the evaluations were done and what observations came from the incident that led to criminal charges.

Can I Refuse To Participate In Field Sobriety Tests In Michigan?

It may surprise some people to learn that the answer is yes—you can refuse to participate in sobriety tests in Michigan. On the one hand, if you refuse to take part in the tests, the officer can’t use any observations during the tests against you in deciding to bring charges, and there will be a question of probable cause for the arrest and issues of proof if the case goes to trial. On the other hand, many people feel that refusing to go through the tests will make them “seem guilty.” If you refuse, the officer must decide if there are enough independent indicators of intoxication to go ahead and request a warrant for a chemical test of your blood or continue charging you for suspected OWI.

Legal Guidance When You’ve Got Questions

The Michigan OWI expert defense attorneys at The Law Offices of Ravi R. Gurumurthy, PLC know the details of the law and understand how law enforcement officers work, so we are prepared to answer your big questions and guide you to the best result in a tough situation. Call us today at 231-577-1580 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation and get answers for your case.


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