Too Fat for Field Sobriety Test?

Arrested for DWI, obese man walks the walk, then released with lawyer's help.

ByABC News
December 19, 2009, 12:13 PM

Dec. 21, 2009 — -- A New Hampshire man was arrested in April on a DWI (driving while intoxicated) charge. But Jaimil Choudhry, 20, of North Hampton, eventually beat the rap with an unusual defense -- he claimed he was too fat to pass the field sobriety tests.

Attorney Andrew Cotrupi argued that his client, at 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing in at 230 pounds, met the clinical definition of obesity and shouldn't have been given the tests in the first place.

The standard field sobriety check is actually made up of three separate tests. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they include the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), the Walk and Turn (WAT) and the One-Leg Stand (OLS). In the HGN, a person is expected to stand on the side of the road while an officer observes "the suspects' eyes as he follows a slowly moving object such as a pen." In the WAT test, a suspect is expected to walk, heel to toe, for nine steps along a straight line. And the OLS test involves standing on one foot for 30 seconds and counting aloud.

New Hampshire State Trooper Stan Dombrowski, who has administered dozens of roadside field sobriety tests, explains that officers first need probable cause to pull someone over. As the tests are administered, officers are trained to look for clues that would indicate a driver is impaired. In the one-leg stand, for instance, those clues would include putting your foot down, swaying or raising your arms for balance.

"You make the best determination you have based on the facts you have," Dombrowski said.

In the Walk and Turn test, the "examiner looks for eight indicators of impairment: If the suspect cannot keep balance while listening to instructions, begins before the instructions are finished, stops while walking to regain balance, does not touch heel-to-toe etc," he said.

NHTSA research indicates that "79 percent of individuals who exhibit two or more indicators in the performance of the test will have a blood alcohol count of 0.08 or greater."

But many defense attorneys, including Lawrence Taylor who literally wrote the book on drunken driving defenses, now routinely question the relevance of field sobriety tests because, according to Taylor, a driver's ability to perform those exercises is as much a function of age, physical condition, experience and weight as it is about sobriety.