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Understanding Yakima DUI Arrests and the Walk and Turn Field Sobriety Test

Posted by Tony Swartz | Sep 23, 2022

Field sobriety tests are roadside tests police conduct during a traffic stop in Washington to determine if a driver is impaired or unlawfully under the influence of alcohol or another chemical substance. The walk-and-turn test is one of the most commonly used field sobriety tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also considers it as one of three standardized field sobriety tests, which can mean the results can be used as evidence against you in DUI cases.

If you had to perform a walk-and-turn test, it is important you understand what it is and how it can be challenged. At Law Office of Tony Swartz, Tony is a DUI defense lawyer in Yakima and Ellensburg and he represents clients in all types of DUI cases. Contact him at 509-293-7593 to schedule a free phone call and to discover how he can help clients defend against DUI charges.

What is a Walk-and-Turn Test?

The walk-and-turn test is a standardized field sobriety test typically used by the police to determine whether a driver is unlawfully under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This test is what's known as a divided attention test: the police get you the shift conscious attention from one task (standing without staggering) and another task (listening to instructions).

Administration of the Walk-and-Turn Test

During the walk-and-turn test, the police are supposed to provide clear and unequivocal instructions and demonstrate the task at hand before you begin the test.

The test itself involves walking in a straight line, heel-to-toe, for approximately nine steps with your arms at your side. Then, at the conclusion of the nine steps, you turn around and walk back to the starting point in the same heel-to-toe manner.

The NHTSA requires certain conditions in order for the test to be performed properly.

  1. A designated straight line
  2. A reasonably dry, hard, level non-slippery surface
  3. Adequate room for nine steps
  4. An option to remove shoes with heels two inches high

Walk-and-Turn Test Clues of Impairment

The purpose of field sobriety tests is to identify clues that indicate you are impaired. The walk-and-turn test incorporates eight clues:

  1. Lack of balance while following instructions
  2. Beginning before instructed to begin
  3. Failing to touch your heel to your toe while walking
  4. Stepping off of the straight line
  5. Stopping while walking
  6. Raising or moving arms to maintain balance
  7. Making an improper turn
  8. Taking more or fewer than nine steps

Missing or failing two or more clues is supposed to indicate that your blood alcohol content (BAC) level is likely over 0.08 percent. However, this field sobriety test, like the others, is flawed and vulnerable to problems that make relying on the results suspect.

Problems with the Walk-and-Turn Test in Washington

The walk-and-turn test is not a reliable way to determine unlawful intoxication. Problems often involve how the test is administered, pre-existing physical or mental conditions, and unsatisfactory environmental conditions.

Police Error

The police make mistakes. They may not provide proper instructions or may interpret the test improperly. For example, an officer may count a person's slow walk as a clue for stopping while walking. Slow walking, however, is specifically identified by the NHTSA as not stopping, but it can be hard to determine what's slow and what's stopping. It all depends on the point of view or interpretation of the officer.

Health Conditions

Research by the NHTSA has shown this test is not suitable for anyone who:

  • is over the age of 65
  • has back or leg problems
  • has middle ear problems

But other health issues, whether physical or mental, can negatively affect a person's performance. Anxiety is a serious health condition. Sufferers of anxiety can experience an anxiety attack from the traffic stop alone, not to mention being asked to perform a divided attention test.

Environmental Conditions

The NHTSA requires a certain environment for this test to be properly performed. Unfortunately, you do not get to choose where you are pulled over for a traffic stop. There is no guarantee the ground will be level and non-slippery or that enough room will be available to safely complete the test.

Further, other environmental conditions can cause distractions and disruptions, like:

  • loud, heavy traffic
  • weather conditions (rain, snow, cold, heat)
  • glaring sun or no sun at all, making it difficult to see

Why These Problems Matter

These problems matter because if you failed the test, it can be used to influence a jury that you were indeed impaired while operating a vehicle. It can also be used to influence you to agree to a plea deal when minus failed field sobriety tests, you could have gotten the charges dismissed (or may not have even been taken into custody in the first place).

Field sobriety tests are used to create probable cause. Probable cause is required for an arrest. When field sobriety tests are unreliable and probable cause is based on them, you suddenly face possible criminal charges that are not necessary. The whole process can be emotionally exhausting, time-consuming, and costly.

Five Ways to Challenge Field Sobriety Test Results in Washington

If you took and failed a field sobriety test, like the walk-and-turn test, you need to challenge the test result by all means possible. These results can be used against you in court. At Law Office of Tony Swartz, Tony is a DUI defense lawyer who can try to challenge the results using different strategies. The strategy used depends on the facts and circumstances.

  1. Did the officer administer the tests improperly or fail to provide adequate instructions? Tony will review any audio or video as well as speak to you and other witnesses.
  2. Did the road, traffic, or weather conditions impact performance? Tony can review videos, photographs, weather reports, traffic reports, and other forms of evidence.
  3. Did your shoes, clothing, or health condition impact performance? Tony will review your clothing and health conditions with you.
  4. Was the officer's subjective assessment flawed? Tony will again review any videos or testimony and consider if this is a valid claim.
  5. Were your constitutional rights violated? You have certain rights, and if the police violated any of these rights, evidence obtained as a result of the violation could be suppressed from evidence.

It is always critical to speak to a defense attorney in your jurisdiction to make sure what your rights are and how best to fight any drunk driving charges.

Contact DUI Defense Attorney in Yakima and Ellensburg Today

Walk-and-turn tests are often unreliable and can be challenged. At Law Office of Tony Swartz, Tony is a DUI defense lawyer who will review the circumstances of your DUI event and challenge any questionable results from field sobriety tests, breath tests, or blood tests. When appropriate, Tony will file motions to exclude the results from evidence. Contact Tony Swartz today by filling out the online form or calling at 509-293-7593 to schedule a free phone call.

About the Author

Tony Swartz

Tony Swartz is an experienced lawyer in Washington State. He has handled, most from start to finish, over 10,000 criminal cases with a focus on DUIs and other misdemeanor charges. In addition to his legal practice, Tony is a recognized expert in the field and routinely teaches classes at both Central Washington University and Yakima Valley College.

Law Office of Tony Swartz

Tony Swartz is a lawyer practicing criminal defense in Kittitas County and Yakima County who specializes in Ellensburg DUIs and Yakima DUIs. He also represents clients with other misdemeanor charges. Call today for a free consultation.

Tony moved to Ellensburg in 2005 and has lived here since other than a brief break for law school. He attended CWU and Willamette University College of Law. He is also on the executive board for Ellensburg Music Festival, Ellensburg Downtown Rotary, and Ellensburg Big Band (where he also plays trumpet). He also plays hockey at the Yakima Ice Rink and Kraken Community Iceplex, in addition to attending a lot of Seattle Kraken games.

Contact Info

​PO Box 684
Ellensburg, WA 98926
Office: 422 N Pine, Ellensburg WA 98926

[email protected]
Fax: 509-295-8378