February 18, 2015

Reciting the Alphabet Backwards as a Field Sobriety Test

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People ask me about field sobriety tests all of the time and one of the most common questions I get is, “Will the officer really make me recite the alphabet backwards?” The answer is that they can, but they probably won’t.

The field sobriety tests that are usually used by law enforcement during a DUI stop are endorsed by the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These tests are standardized and include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk-and-turn test, and the stand on one leg test. Any other field sobriety test, including the backwards alphabet recital, is not supported by research and does not meet the requirements for standardization.

But just because the backwards alphabet recital test is not endorsed by the NHTSA, doesn’t mean that law enforcement can’t use it.

If the alphabet is used at all as a field sobriety test, the DUI suspect is usually asked to recite it forward without singing. A DUI suspect may also be asked to recite the alphabet forward, sometimes with their eyes closed. The officer will then look for the presence of impairment indicators. These indicators include the following: Whether the DUI suspect improperly states the alphabet, whether the DUI suspect sways, opens their eyes, or needs to use his or her arms for balance.

Since the alphabet test is not endorsed by the NHTSA, there are no set guidelines for which an officer can administer it. Some officers may have a DUI suspect begin reciting the alphabet beginning on an arbitrary letter such as “J.” Other officers may have the DUI suspect stop at an arbitrary letter. And some may have the DUI suspect say the alphabet backwards!

In my practice, I have yet to see an officer request any of my clients to recite the alphabet either backwards or forward. And it’s a good thing too. I would’ve fought tooth and nail to get it thrown out as a completely unreliable indicator of intoxication.

As many of the people whom I’ve spoken with about field sobriety tests are quick to point out, most of us couldn’t even recite the alphabet backwards even if we’re sober.


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The acronyms DUI, DWI, OMVI and OVI all refer to the same thing: operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The most commonly used terms are DUI, an acronym for Driving Under the Influence, and DWI, an acronym for Driving While Impaired.
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