Attorney Steve Mays Wins Challenging SFST

workers’ compensation lawyer


Attorney Steve Mays got the OWI charge (operating while under the influence) dropped for his Client M.E. when he challenged the lawfulness of the police officer’s Field Sobriety Testing performed on the scene of arrest.

ME was pulled over due to his vehicle registration being expired. In his report of the incident, the arresting officer indicated that he detected an odor of intoxicants and noticed ME had bloodshot eyes. He further suggested that ME initially handing him a credit card when he was asked to provide his driver license was a sign of possible alcohol impairment. When asked to provide proof of insurance, ME “grabbed a bunch of papers but fumbled through them.” The officer further viewed this as evidence of impairment. When asked if he had been drinking, ME responded that he had consumed one beer approximately four hours prior. Based on these observations, the officer asked ME to exit his vehicle to perform standardized field sobriety testing (SFST).

Standardized Field Sobriety Testing is comprised of a battery of three (3) standardized tests: the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), the Walk-and-Turn (WAT), and the One-Leg Stand (OLS). These tests are designed to evaluate a person’s balance, coordination, and cognitive function—skills often impaired by alcohol consumption. This battery of three tests was developed after many, many national studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

1. Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN): The HGN test involves observing the involuntary jerking of the eyes as they gaze to the side. Alcohol consumption exaggerates this jerking, making it more pronounced at lower angles. Officers assess the smoothness of eye movement, tracking ability, and onset of nystagmus, providing insights into the level of intoxication.

2. Walk-and-Turn (WAT): In the WAT test, individuals are instructed to take nine heel-to-toe steps along a straight line, turn on one foot, and return in the same manner. Officers look for indicators such as the ability (or inability) to maintain balance, follow instructions, and perform the task accurately, all of which can be compromised by alcohol impairment.

3. One-Leg Stand (OLS): During the OLS test, drivers are asked to stand on one leg while keeping the other foot approximately six inches off the ground. Officers monitor the individual’s ability to maintain balance and count seconds as a measure of impairment.
While SFST’s are a widely accepted tool, they are not without criticisms and limitations. Critics argue that factors such as age, weight, physical condition, and nervousness can affect test performance, leading to false positives. Additionally, certain medical conditions, environmental factors, and even footwear can influence results, casting doubt on the tests’ reliability.

Furthermore, concerns about subjectivity in interpretation exist. Officers undergo training to administer and evaluate SFST’s, but human judgment remains a factor. Bias, unconscious or otherwise, could potentially influence the outcome of tests, raising questions about fairness and accuracy.

In this particular case, an environmental factor, as mentioned above, played a pivotal role in the success of ME’s defense. One such environmental factor which can interfere with the HGN in particular is flashing lights. Nystagmus is an “involuntary jerking of the eyes.” It is always present to some degree but is exacerbated by alcohol consumption. This manifests as what is known as “gaze nystagmus.” However, there are numerous other causes of nystagmus ranging from neurological disorders to vitamin deficiencies. The particular cause at play in this case was flashing lights, which can cause “optokinetic nystagmus,” something that law enforcement officers are not trained or qualified to distinguish from gaze nystagmus.

When the officer began the first test, the HGN, pursuant to his training, he deactivated his front facing flashing squad lights so as to not be a source for a potential false positive. However, before the test commenced, a second officer arrived on scene. He did not deactivate any of his flashing squad lights. Video evidence revealed that throughout the entire HGN test there were flashing lights directly in ME’s line of vision. ME’s performance on the other two standardized field sobriety tests revealed little, if any, indications of impairment. Nevertheless, the arresting officer requested that ME submit to a handheld preliminary breath test (PBT). Based on the HGN test and the PBT result, ME was placed under arrest for Operating While under the Influence of an Intoxicant as a third offense and taken into custody to perform an evidentiary chemical test of his breath, which unlike the PBT, is admissible in court.

Based on the video evidence Attorney Stephen Mays filed a motion to suppress ME’s arrest. Suppression is a remedy for a violation of one’s constitutional rights, in this case a violation of ME’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches or seizures. Two issues were raised in this case. The larger issue was whether ME’s arrest was supported by evidence of impaired driving sufficient to rise to the level of probable cause. However within that issue is the secondary question of whether the evidence leading up to the PBT request met the lesser standard of “probable cause to believe” that ME was impaired, which is the standard of proof required by statute and case law before an officer is permitted to request a PBT (see: County of Jefferson v. Renz, 231 Wis. 2d 293, 316, 603 N.W.2d 541 (1999), which was also handled and argued by Attorney Mays in the Wisconsin Supreme Court).

In practice, what this means is that if the evidence prior to the PBT request was sufficient to make the request and the result is over the legal limit, in most cases this means that the arrest itself will be deemed supported by probable cause, and therefore, lawful. If not and the PBT result is suppressed, then it is axiomatic that the arrest itself was not supported by probable cause and everything that occurred after that point becomes inadmissible in court, most importantly the evidentiary chemical breath test.

When the motion was heard by the Court, Attorney Mays mercilessly cross-examined the arresting officer regarding the impropriety of administering an HGN test in the presence of flashing lights – which he claimed did not happen, until he was proven wrong when viewing the video in court – thereby introducing the possibility that what he observed may not have been gaze nystagmus at all. Ultimately, the officer was forced to admit that he did not administer the HGN in a manner consistent with his training and as required by NHTSA, and that the validity of that test was compromised as a result. Following briefing of the legal issues, as requested by the Court, the Court ruled that the arrest of ME was not supported by probable cause in violation of ME’s Fourth Amendment rights. As a result, the evidentiary chemical breath test was suppressed for use at trial. Deprived of its most significant piece of evidence, the State had no choice but to move to dismiss the case.

Attorney Steve Mays is an aggressive advocate for his client’s. He has more than two decades of experience winning for his client’s. He has a 5 Star Google review from his previous client’s. Charged with a crime? Do not hesitate to call Mays Law Office and talk to Attorney Steve Mays for a free consultation.