[Ed. note - This is part 4 of a 6 part DUI Training series. This training article is on the Walk and Turn test. Other articles cover Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, One Leg Stand, Vehicle in Motion, Personal Contact and specific safety concerns when conducting DUI investigations.]
In this fourth article on the standardized field sobriety tests (SFST), I will review the Walk-and-Turn (WAT) test which is the second test in the NHTSA approved 3-test battery. The final SFST is the OLS – One Leg Stand test, and I’ll have a future article on that test soon.
The WAT is another important test in determining sobriety or lack thereof. As with the other NHTSA tests this test has a strict way of instructing and performing an example of the WAT. As with any of the tests I recommend to officers I instruct to take their time, focus, and learn to move right through moments of memory loss like it was a planned event. There is probably nothing more intimidating and frustrating to an officer than to appear flustered to a suspect. It WILL happen – let me teach you to overcome that fear and nail these tests.
The first requirement of the WAT is to position the subject in the proper STARTING POSITION.
This position will be maintained by the subject until the instructions are ended and they are ready to begin the actual performance test. First, I have the person stand with their feet together – heels and toes touching, and their arms down to their side (same as all the other tests). I then stand approximately 10 feet in front of the subject and ask them if they can imagine a line from the tip of their left foot to my foot. Almost without fail they will say yes. I will then instruct them to place their right foot on that line, directly in front of their left foot and touching heel to toe. I then instruct them to remain in that position until I tell them to begin and ask them “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Get a verbal acknowledgement! If at any time the subject says they do not understand, then find out exactly what it is they don’t understand and then only repeat instructions for that part – do not start repeating all of the instructions.
This simple instruction is critical for three reasons. If you just tell a person to walk a line (and there is no line) then a defense attorney can always create doubt by saying their client (who was scared and nervous) did not know what line you meant. By the subject acknowledging their own line and then placing their foot on that line they have sealed their fate – it was THEIR line. When the defense attorney gets smart and asks “officer how big was this line in the dark?” you can respond “you’ll have to ask your client, because it was the line that they imagined.” Defense destroyed.
The second important reason for this instruction is that NHTSA requires the subject to maintain that position until all instructions are completed and they actually begin walking. Don’t let them get out of that position during your instructions, and if they do then score a clue.
The third reason is that the test requires the person to start walking by taking a step with their left foot. This is so the turn will be properly performed on step #9, so make sure you get them in the correct starting position – it matters!
The first two recognized clues of impairment are found during the Instructions Phase of the WAT:
- STARTS WALKING TOO SOON (BEFORE INSTRUCTIONS ARE COMPLETE)
- FAILS TO MAINTAIN HEEL-TO-TOE STANCE.
Each clue is ONE clue, but that one clue may be observed multiple times. This understanding is important because NHTSA says that if you observe 2 or more clues on the WAT than the subject is likely impaired. If they start too soon five times that is NOT five clues. That is one clue observed five times, and should be documented that way.
Something else that is critically important at this point of the test. Raising the arms for balance during the instructions, or bending the legs, or swaying, or hopping, etc. ARE NOT clues that can be scored! Note them for the report, but don’t score!
Be reasonable! If the person steps out of position numerous times gauge their balance and if needed – STOP THE TEST! If they’re minor steps out then you can probably get them back in position and continue. If they’re about to fall down – STOP THE TEST! Make sure you document that you stopped the test for their safety.
If a person can’t stand in the starting position because their balance is effected so badly … you’ve made your case for impairment! It doesn’t matter that you didn’t get the test completed. Videos from patrol cars will help make your decision conclusively valid. Having someone fall down may seem like a slam dunk for your case, but a judge or jury may see it as a failure of duty to protect this suspect from foreseeable injury!
BASIC TEST INSTRUCTIONS.
This is simply a way for the officer to gather their thoughts and give the simplest explanation of what they are going to expect the subject to do.
I will be in the same starting position with my left side facing the subject in a perpendicular position about 10 feet away for good reactionary distance. You can give these instructions outside of the starting position, but I do it (on video) to dispel defense claims that the surface made it impossible to stand in position during the instructions.
The instructions should be as simple as this – “what I’m basically going to have you do is walk 9 heel-to-toe steps down that line, turn using a small series of steps like I’ll show you, and walk 9 heel-to-toe steps back down that line. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Get a verbal acknowledgement.
WALKING (or DEMONSTRATION) INSTRUCTIONS.
Regardless of if you are a left-handed officer you need to start with your left side facing the subject. When you provide an example, including the turn, you will expose your back to the subject unless you start with your left side towards them. Turning to the left will actually turn you towards the subject. You have already given a basic description of what the subject is going to do, so at this point simply focus on actually showing them what they are going to do. Wait to give the final instructions until after the walking demonstration.
I tell the subject “this is what the test will look like.” I then start walking heel-to- toe and counting my steps “one, two three.” Now the NHTSA manual actually instructs the officer to stop at step “three” and explain that the you have only taken three steps but the subject will continue until taking nine steps. They will then perform a turn in the manner that you will verbalize and demonstrate.
“Leave your left foot down, while taking a small series of steps to turn around, just like I’m doing.” For my example turn I usually take 3 partial steps in a semi-circular motion with my right foot.
Now I must admit a slight variance that I do compared to the NHTSA instructions. We are supposed to be instructing and giving an example just as we expect the subject to do. By stopping during our walking instructions we are providing an example of a clue that we will score against the subject if they do the same. The NHTSA videos even show the stop during instructions – ugh! So to avoid this problem I have practiced my instructions to coincide with a continual movement of 3 steps, a slow series of steps to turn, and then 3 steps back.
To accomplish this I say as I’m making my third step “on down to nine steps”. At the same time I’m beginning my semi-circle steps with my right foot. Then in the same movement I point to my left foot and explain “leave that foot down and make a series of small steps to turn around”. By that time I’m usually done with my turn and I immediately go into my return walk – just like I expect them to do. I count those steps out loud and finish with “on down to nine steps. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
It is a slight variance from NHTSA but I feel it is more then reasonable and actually eliminates a defense claim if they stop and I score that clue. Your call.
THE FINAL INSTRUCTIONS
Don’t try to give detailed instructions while you are performing your example! It is the surest way for you to screw up, get flustered, and then forget critical components of the instructions. Screwing up and embarrassing yourself is also likely to cause you to avoid investigating DUI in the future, and that’s bad for everyone on the road.
The last instructions can best be remembered by the Head-to-Toe method:
Head – “I want you to look down and watch your steps” Mouth – “I want you to count your steps out loud like I did” Arms – “I want you to keep your arms down to your side at all times” Legs – “Once you’ve started the test don’t stop until the test is finished”.
These instructions are necessary because most are going to be clues that are scored if the subject doesn’t perform them. I will admit that through experience I have realized that many subjects that step off the line once will simply stop the test at that point. I add on the Legs instruction – “if you step off the line, regain your balance, and keep walking where you left off.” Again, this is NOT a part of the NHTSA instructions, but I have never been challenged on that, because an instruction that goes above and beyond to explain the test is not one that the defense will want to attack. If you give incorrect or incomplete instructions – that’s a different story.
CLUES THAT ARE SCORED – TOTAL = 8, IMPAIRMENT = 2 OR MORE
Instructions Phase Starts before instructions are completed Fails to maintain heel-to-toe stance during instructions
Walking (Performance) Phase Steps off the line – (I’m a stickler – if part of their foot is on and part off – its off. Misses heel to toe – more than 1/2” (if you see a distinguishable gap you’re there) Raises arms for balance – more than 6” from sides Stops while walking – stop by definition is any cessation of movement Improper turn – quick pivot, turn to the right, walking backwards, etc. Incorrect number of steps – 9 down, and 9 back – anything else is wrong
Not looking at feet, or not counting out loud are NOT clues to be scored, but their failure to do so should be noted because you instructed them to do so. I will also re-instruct them during the test if they are not doing them. These are divided attention tests (divided attention is critical to safe driving). If they cheat, even on those “small” things, they are making the test much easier for themselves.
You will notice that during the test I have instructed you to ask the subject a minimum of four (4) times “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”. A positive response four times is pretty much an impossible hill to overcome with a “didn’t understand” defense.
And here’s a great hint – Anytime you feel like you’re getting lost in the instructions, pause to think and ask “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”. If you ask it four or fourteen times it’s all good, and hopefully will give you time to regain your composure. And it’s OK to have brief pauses in the instructions for the same reason. Trust me, it’s more fluid than you might think and it looks totally natural and planned.
Remember that there are 8 separate clues on this test. Observing multiple violations of a clue still only gets scored once for that clue. Document the number of times each clue is violated to build your case’s strength.
Practice makes perfect on these tests. There is a lot to remember and perform, but if you break it down in the four sections I’ve laid out you should be able to remember everything and be confident.
Aaron is a sergeant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a trainer, supervisor and SWAT sniper. In addition to his broad tactical knowledge, Aaron has experience in DUI, DRE and undercover narcotics investigations.