Officers trained on seated sobriety test

By DeeAnna Haney | Nov 18, 2012
Photo by: DeeAnna Haney Ann Fowler, Sr. Officer with the traffic safety unit for the Asheville Police Department performs the "finger to nose" test.

When it comes to pulling over drunk or drugged drivers, officers both on the roads and on the water have heard every excuse in the book.

From complaining about back pain to a woman refusing to walk in her high heels, people can usually think of a reason to not perform the traditional “walk and turn” sobriety test.

But a new test takes walking heel to toe or doing the “one leg stand” out of the equation completely.

Recently, officers from agencies across the region attended a standardized seated field sobriety test course, which offers them a new way to test drivers while still behind the wheel.

The Waynesville Police Department hosted the course in conjunction with the Western North Carolina chapter of MADD and course instructors from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Initially developed for wildlife and marine law enforcement officers in 2011, the new test was an answer to a problem officers faced when pulling over impaired boaters.

For years, officers were unable to successfully perform the heel to toe sobriety tests to people while standing in boats, said Catawba County Wildlife Officer Allen Carlisle, an instructor for the class.

“Being on the water offers a lot more danger than being on the road, which at least has lines to show you where to go,” he said.

And more often than not, drunk drivers in the water will eventually get in their cars and drive drunk on the road, he added.

But having a seated test allows marine officers the advantage of proving drunken driving more effectively.

Last year, North Carolina was the first state to train all wildlife officers. Since then, agencies across the state have begun to recognize how useful the new test can be when it comes to driving while impaired cases.

“As far as our agency is concerned, it’s just another tool to put in our toolbox to successfully prosecute DWI cases because there have been cases we’ve had where people are unwilling or unable to perform standing tests,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.

And it’s not just useful for drunk driving cases.

“If we could do those tests seated, we can still prove impairment on all levels,” he said, going on to explain that officers can also use the test for suspected drugged drivers.

The tests involve a series of coordinated hand gestures that a sober person should be able to perform with little difficulty, Carlisle explained during the class.

The “finger to nose” test requires the driver to sit with their head tilted back and eyes closed. At the officer’s direction, the person is told to touch the tip of their nose with their index finger and then immediately return their hand to their side. They are then asked to quickly alternate the action from left hand to right hand.

The second test, called the “palm pat” where the driver uses one hand with palm up and one palm down. Then, they must turn the upper hand over to clap the other, counting and speeding up as they go.

The third test, which was developed in California, is a hand coordination test, which involves counting aloud and moving fists in a step-like fashion and then clapping three times before repeating the step.

Officers are required to pay close attention to whether the person can follow directions and stay positioned correctly, Carlisle said.

Those participating in last week’s class must have already been certified to perform standard field sobriety tests.

Nine officers with the Waynesville Police Department participated in the class, but the entire department will eventually be trained to perform the seated test, said Hollingsed.

Mike Bonfoey, district attorney for the 30th judicial district, said the test will be useful for officers as an alternative to the traditional test.

“Basically it’s just additional evidence the court can consider to decide whether the state has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

More than anything, it's another way to keep drunk and drugged drivers off the road, which is the main goal of MADD, said Ellen Pitt, MADD representative for WNC.

"We assist agencies with training any time we can because its part of our mission," she said. "I was pleased that we had so many different agencies from so far away. Its always nice to know we can bring something to Western North Carolina instead of always having it in Raleigh."

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