The walk and turn test is used to investigate potential DUI suspects. The officer asks the suspect to stand on a “line” (real or imaginary) with the heel of one foot touching the toes of the other foot. The suspect then take nine heel-to-toe steps on the line, turns on one foot, and comes back the same way. If the suspect has trouble balancing or completing the test, they may be considered intoxicated.
Law enforcement officers are trained in a variety of field sobriety tests (FSTs) to find out whether a driver is impaired or not. One of the three most common and “standardized” FSTs is the walk and turn test (also known as “walking the line” or the “nine steps test”). This test is considered reliable because it has been tested extensively in both labs and the field. It it’s administered correctly, it has a 68% accuracy rate and can assist officers in deciding whether to arrest you for DUI.
The other two “standardized” FSTs are:
All three of these tests are acceptable as evidence in court, but the one-leg stand test is not the most reliable of the three (HGN has a higher accuracy rate).
Why is the walk and turn test used?
On its surface the walk and turn test is a simple test of balance, but it’s actually much more than that. It is a “divided attention” test that forces you to concentrate on a physical task (walking the line) and a mental task (counting steps and following a set of instructions) at the same time. People can often do one physical activity or one mental activity when intoxicated, but have a hard time concentrating on both at once.
How is the walk and turn test done?
To administer the walk and turn test the officer must find a flat, even, dry and debris-free area for you to walk on. In many cases they will use a nearby parking lot, which allows you to walk along an actual line painted on the ground, but this is not required. The officer can draw a line on the ground with chalk, or even ask you to walk parallel to a curb.
To start the test, the officer will demonstrate the position they want you to begin in. This involves standing with one foot in front of the other, with the heel of one foot touching the toes of the other, as if you are standing on a tight rope. You must keep your arms down at your sides. Once you are in this position, the officer will give the rest of the instructions:
- When the officer tells you to, you will start walking forward on the line.
- You will take exactly 9 steps.
- Every step will be a heel-to-toe step, with the front of one foot touching the back of the other foot. The officer will demonstrate this.
- After the 9 steps you will turn around on one foot. You will leave the front foot on the line and turn by making a series of small steps with the other foot. The officer will demonstrate this as well.
- Once you have turned around you will take 9 steps back the same way.
- You will keep your hands at your sides the entire time.
- You will count each step out loud.
- Once you start the test, you won’t stop until you complete it.
If these instructions sound complicated, that’s intentional. The test is designed to require mental focus as well as physical balance.
How do officers decide whether I passed or failed the test?
During the test, the officer will then look for eight things:
- You sway during the instructions, lose your balance, or cannot stay heel-to-toe
- You start walking before the instructions are finished
- You have to stop walking or pause to steady yourself
- You leave space between your feet (not “heel to toe”) or do not walk a straight line
- You step off the line entirely
- You move your arms more than six inches from your sides to help keep your balance
- You lose your balance while turning or do not turn the way you were shown
- You do not take the correct number of steps
You will acquire “points” for each of these mistakes that you make, up to a total of 8 points. However, it only takes 2 points to fail the test. You also fail the test if you step off the line three or more times, or if you cannot complete the test at all. In this case you are considered to have scored 9 points.
If you fail, officers will assume you have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .10% or more, which is higher than the limit for driving in California.
Can I be convicted of DUI for failing the walk and turn test?
Not exactly. Although the test is considered scientific, it’s not strong evidence. Sober people can easily fail the walk and turn test. In most cases, the prosecution will prefer to use a breath test or blood test as their main evidence, and the FSTs are given less weight. But if officers claim you failed the test, it’s important to attack its accuracy.
How do I attack the walk and turn test as evidence in my DUI case?
Walk and turn tests have two big weaknesses:
- Even if administered correctly, they’re only about 68% accurate. That means that nearly a third of people who fail the test could actually be sober.
- It’s common for law enforcement to administer the test incorrectly.
Either or both of these weaknesses could affect whether your test is valid or not, and you can challenge it. Some of the grounds for challenging the walk and turn test are:
- You were not given a visible line to follow, or the line was not straight
- There wasn’t enough room to easily take the nine steps
- The ground was uneven, had gravel or litter, or was wet or slippery
- It was too dark to easily see the line
- The officer or other factors, such as traffic, caused distractions during the test
- You are elderly, overweight, or had a condition that affected your ability to do the test, such as arthritis or an inner ear condition
- You were wearing unsuitable footwear, such as heels, and/or were not given the chance to remove your shoes for the test.
- Your clothing interfered with the test.
- The officer did not demonstrate the steps or give clear instructions.
Any of these factors can undermine the walk and turn test in your case. A good lawyer can often fight a DUI successfully even if you failed the field sobriety tests.
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