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Walking the line: how accurate are field sobriety tests?

Nearly everyone in Michigan has a general idea of what a field sobriety test entails. Though the process isn't quite like what we've seen on television or in the movies, the premise is the same: test an individual to see if they were driving while intoxicated.

Field sobriety tests vary from state to state though. Some states require preliminary testing on a person before issuing a breathalyzer or blood alcohol test. In these preliminary tests, an officer is looking for "tell-tale signs" of drunkenness such as jerky eyes or balancing issues.

Some argue though that these kinds of sobriety tests are often times unreliable because of substantial human error on both sides. Many people have problems with balance when they are completely sober which, in the event of a traffic stop, may make an officer think that they are intoxicated when in fact they are not.

Some have also pointed out that the eye test, that determines drunkenness by the involuntary jerking of a suspect's eyes, can give false results if the suspect has an already existing condition that mimics the same results. An officer with a jerky finger can also equal a jerky eye path which can greatly skew results.

Due to accuracy issues, man officers across the nation have now steered towards chemical testing when it comes to cases of drunk driving. Many experts point out though that even these tests can be tainted by machines that haven't been calibrated properly or by lab technicians who may accidentally contaminate samples. One small miscalculation could mean the difference between proving someone's innocence and charge an innocent person with an OWI.

Despite the fact that field sobriety tests may not be 100 percent accurate, many attorneys say that it is generally worse to refuse a sobriety test, especially in Michigan. Drivers that refuse to take a preliminary breath test during traffic stops here, even if they end up proving they are sober later, run the risk of fines and tickets which may require legal assistance to sort out.

Source: The Courier News, "RPD introduces DWI detection to Citizens Police Academy class," Heather Sprinkle, Oct. 25, 2012

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